Ten minutes before SSP Chawrasia sank a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win the 2016 Hero Indian Open at the Delhi Golf Club, Anirban Lahiri stole victory in defeat. Lahiri, with the clubhouse lead at 13-under-par, had just missed a birdie putt of his own on the last that would have reduced Chawrasia’s lead—at 14-under-par—to a tenuous single stroke. Still, with the dangerous jhadis lurking all the way down the left side of the 18th fairway, it was hardly a walk in the park for Chawrasia who had been—understandably for someone who had come up short on no less than four occasions in the past—dealing with nerves all day. When the Kolkatan, visibly shaky, took a minute to regain his composure and delicately guided a wedge to within three feet the gallery around the 18th erupted in a roar—Lahiri’s voice audible above the rest.
I know that Chawrasia—as humble and grounded a player you’re likely to find in professional golf—will not hold it against me when I say that Lahiri’s sportsmanship and genuine appreciation for that shot made for a glorious moment—the kind of goose pimple-inducing stuff that only sport can invoke—that, at least for me, will remain the defining moment of the tournament. It joins the annals of fanboy vignettes from the Open—the one tournament most of us have seen from the sidelines of a fairway rather than on a television screen. If 2007 was about Jyoti Randhawa’s magical eagle on the par-4 16th, (also at the DGC) from 130 yards out that sealed his record-equalling third triumph at the tournament; and 2008 about Muniyappa’s curling ten-footer that edged out Korean Lee Sung on the first playoff hole; then 2016 will be as much about Lahiri’s sportsmanship and dignity in defeat as it will be about Chawrasia breaking a long-standing jinx at the national championship.
“It’s not quite as painful, let me put it that way. But there is nothing sweeter than being the Indian Open champion. It was a disappointing finish after a promising start for me. But I am so happy for SSP. This win is huge for him. We were tied for second three years ago, he was second last year and has been second four times at this tournament so it’s great for him to win and lock down the Olympics and everything else that comes with it. I am really pleased for him,” said a bittersweet Lahiri at the post round conference.
Pro golfers in India don’t have it easy, and ‘Chow’ has had it harder than most. The camaraderie that binds these players is borne out of a collective spirit of railing, and beating the odds. That bonding is going to work well for Chawrasia and Lahiri who are now certain picks to represent the country at the Olympics in 2016.
For those of us following Chawrasia on the final day, it seemed all too déjà vu. A bogey on the 12th and one-over for the round, Chawrasia looked tense with the chasing group including Lahiri breathing down his neck. Lahiri had caught him in 2015 and the Kolkatan hadn’t forgotten that crushing defeat. “Yesterday, after finishing my (third) round I was pretty tense. I knew Anirban was right there and thought he would make a charge,” recounted Chawrasia at the post match press conference. He birdied the 13th to get back to even for the day before that decisive birdie on the last took him across the line.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Chawrasia had sought help the night before after taking the lead in the third round. And from none other than the country’s truly international golfer—Jeev Milkha Singh—on how to get the job finished. Singh had responded with a piece of golf’s timeless advice: stay in the moment; in the shot that you’re playing; stick to your gameplan, and forget about what others are doing.
Armed with that sage wisdom, Chawrasia stayed patient and stuck to his strategy of hitting fairways and greens even in face of an early onslaught by Lahiri who dropped three straight birdies to start the day. “When Anirban started with three birdies in a row, I just kept my game together, just like Jeev advised me. He told me not to get tensed and get over aggressive even if someone hit four or five birdies. He also told me to play just like I had played over the past three days and that I would win the tournament if I managed to do that. For the entire day, I kept exactly that in my mind. I felt that he had given me the key to win the tournament. So, a big thanks to Jeev sir!” exulted Chawrasia after the win.
Last-gasp drama apart Chawrasia was by far the steadiest player over the week reaffirming that consistency is the only way to win at the DGC. He needed only 103 putts to win the tournament; made par or better every single time he found the sand; and even more astoundingly, did not make a single three-putt all week.
The highlight reel of the tournament also included an ace by Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin—possibly the sweetest swinger in the field—on the fifth hole in the first round, and a rare albatross on the par-five eighth in the second round of the Hero Indian Open by England’s Lee Slattery.
The Delhi Golf Club, as always, opened its doors to fans who came in droves and transformed the venue into that annual cornucopia of golf replete with lazy lunches, and groups of youngsters who came to see their heroes in action.
The DGC is all that it’s made out to be—a unique, historical, and difficult layout—but a large part of its allure as the national open’s favourite venue also lies in its accessibility, location and popularity. Sponsor’s views apart, as long as the club continues to draw the largest number of fans and garners press reportage, it will continue to host the Hero Indian Open. The Open is not only for the players: its purpose is to continue to inspire and spread the game—the Indian Open exists because it must.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game