Column: Man of the hour

By: | Published: February 15, 2015 12:41 AM

Anirban Lahiri, only the second Indian golfer in history to break into the World Top 50, will be headlining the star cast at the 51st Hero Indian Open..

A two-under 70 at the treacherous West Course at the Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club is a great round—under any circumstances—by anyone. As an opening effort in a European Tour-sanctioned event, it’s better than great. Which is why, Anirban Lahiri’s barely-disguised disgust at the post-round interview—after shooting that very score to open his account at the 2015 Maybank Malaysian Open last week—seemed rather bizarre. “I missed way too many putts. The way I hit it today, I should have hit a five- or six-under, but I let it slip away from it. I’m playing really well and coming into this week with a lot of confidence and positivity after working on my game. In that sense, I’m quite disappointed with how I played today,” he said crossly, while balking at the suggestion that perhaps he was just “out of touch?” “I’m not rusty. I was rusty three weeks back. I changed my practice routine in the last couple of weeks and played three rounds of golf back-to-back—that’s something, which I don’t normally do in my off-season. I wanted to get back into the groove of playing 18 holes and maintaining my focus over 18 holes. I’m feeling good and positive, but I have to put my poor finish behind me and play similar golf.”

In retrospect, what may have seemed like arrogance, was, in fact, just plainspeak from a golfer bang in the middle of the purple patch of his career, and a manifestation of his confidence. To illustrate his point, Lahiri calmly proceeded to shoot a scintillating second round of 10-under 62—matching the lowest score in the history of the tournament and on the European Tour this season—to propel himself into contention. Trailing Bernd Wiesberger of Austria in the $3-million event on the final day, Lahiri made up a five-stroke deficit and sealed the deal with an audacious 50-footer on the penultimate hole.

The $500,000 cheque—Lahiri’s biggest ever—is special, as is the career-high 37th ranking in the world, second only to the 29th place that Jeev Milkha Singh occupied in 2009; let’s not forget the automatic entry into a WGC event; or the fact that he’s in prime position to qualify for the Masters Tournament in April, the year’s first Major and also the International Team for the Presidents Cup later this year. Goes without saying that he’s got the top spot on the Asian Tour’s order of merit to himself. All of this is great, but for Lahiri, tellingly, the biggest takeaway was to be paired with Major winner Lee Westwood. And play better than him. “I wanted to win an event, which is big, not just in prize money, but in terms of the field. I played with Lee Westwood and, unfortunately, he had a bad day. You are playing in the field with Major winners and you beat them. That is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.” Lahiri became the fourth Indian to win a European Tour event following wins from Jeev Milkha Singh, SSP Chawrasia and Arjun Atwal, and the first to do it in his rookie season.

There couldn’t possibly have been a better frame of mind, and game, that Lahiri could have hoped for heading into the Hero Indian Open, which tees off next week at the Delhi Golf Club. As portents go, it’s just one of many: for the first time, the national open will be tri-sanctioned by the European Tour, Asian Tour and the PGTI; the weightage it carries in the World Golf Rankings have gone up; and Lahiri knows how to win here, repeatedly—he won his first three Asian Tour titles at the DGC. For hunger, how about the fact that none of those were the National Open, which is the one he really wants: “The DGC is always special as it gave my first three wins and last year I came within a sniffing distance of the Hero Indian Open and I desperately want to add it to my collection. I feel very comfortable at this venue.” My money is on the 27-year-old from Bangalore; the odds are way too skewed in his favour.

But it would be foolish to count out Rashid Khan. The DGC lad won the Asian Tour’s SAIL-SBI Open in 2014, exacting revenge for his playoff loss to Lahiri at the previous edition of the event. Khan also won again in Thailand and is capable of pulling off miracles on his home course’s greens.

For the first time in many years, the 51st Hero Indian Open will feature a star-cast of Indian golfers: Jeev Milkha Singh will be there, as will Jyoti Randhawa, Gaganjeet Bhullar and Shiv Kapur. Jeev has won 20 times around the world and Bhullar has won five times in Asia, but neither has an Asian or European Tour win at the DGC. “I have come so close to winning the Indian Open so many times. I have won the National Open of many other countries like Scotland, Singapore, China and Austria, but it is the Indian Open I want most,” says Jeev. Bhullar, who possesses arguably the prettiest swing in Indian golf will make a welcome return from injury. And in the background, as always, will lurk the reticent SSP Chowrasia who’s made a habit of flying under the radar and astonishing everyone with come-from-behind wins at the DGC. Chowrasia also won an Asian Tour event at the DGC last year and is in fine touch.

It’s rare to write about the field at the Indian Open without focusing on international stars. But those who intend to watch from the sidelines must pencil in walking a few holes with the legendary Miguel Angel Jimenez. The Spaniard, one of the most successful golfers in the history of the game, continues to foil the long hitters with his adroit mix of strategy and course management. Then there’s the Scot, Peter Lawrie, who might do well to deploy some links-style short play around the DGC on his first outing at the course. And those who need further evidence that the golf swing can be swung in many ways, only need to marvel at the baseball finish of former Indian Open winner, Liang Wen-chong.

The 51st Hero Indian Open is going to be a bigger and more exciting affair than ever—the weather’s perfect and there’s no good excuse for not making it to the DGC on the weekend. See you there!

A golfer, Meraj Shah also

writes about the game

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