For years, Anirban Lahiri had played – by his own admission – “awful”. After two memorable titles seven years ago, it was feared that the golfer who had promised so much would sink into oblivion. But as most of the country slept on Monday night, Lahiri put in one of the finest performances by an Indian in international golf.
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With the odds stacked against him, the 34-year-old came close to winning the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, finishing second to Australian Cameron Smith in one of the most prestigious tournaments on the golfing calendar.
What is special about Lahiri’s second place?
More than anything, it’s about the true underdog spirit. The Indian had last won a tournament in 2015 and entering the Players Championship, Lahiri had been nothing more than a journeyman golfer who embarked on the highly competitive PGA Tour without managing anything. dramatically in recent years.
His miserable form had also continued into 2022. Prior to last weekend, Lahiri had played 12 tournaments this year. He could only make five cups, fell outside the top 200 in the FedEx Cup (the PGA Tour championship trophy) and slipped to 332 in the world rankings. He was one of the lowest-ranked players in the competition, and with stormy Florida weather rocking the pitch, not much was expected of the man from Bengaluru.
Still, he fought against all odds and remained in contention for the prestigious title until the final blow.
What is the Players Championship and why is it so important?
The competition is often referred to as the “Fifth Major” and referred to in the same breath as the original four tournaments – the PGA Championship, Masters, US Open and The Open Championship. This tournament is to golf what, for example, the Indian Wells Masters 1000 is to tennis – in that it is the most attended tournament outside of the four Majors.
The Players Championship playing field is considered one of the strongest in golf, with 144 players qualifying based on their PGA Tour wins in the previous season, major wins in the three to five years previous events and the FedEx Cup standings. Lahiri qualified for the championship based on his FedEx Cup placing, having been in the top 125 in the 2020-21 season.
Additionally, the Stadium Course – which has hosted the Players Championship since 1982 – caters to all styles of play, making it difficult for one type of player to dominate. Unsurprisingly, no golfer has been able to defend their title in the history of this tournament.
What were the conditions like last weekend and how did the favorites behave?
World number 1 John Rahm called it “the strangest event we could have”. It was raining the first three days of the competition, followed by strong winds. According to golf.com, the wind speed on Saturday afternoon was 26 mph, with “gusts up to 40 mph”. The conditions led to numerous stops and starts, forcing a rare finish on Monday after it became impossible to complete all four runs by Sunday. And a lot of star players have fallen by the wayside.
Among the favorites who were unable to weather the drastic weather and missed the cup were three-time Major winner Jordan Spieth, four-time Major champion Brooks Koepka, reigning FedEx champion Cup Patrick Cantlay and the double winner of the Major Collin Morikawa. Established players like Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson also found it difficult.
To get an idea of the openness and hardness of the field, at one point in the final round, around 25 players were within three shots of the leader. Still, Lahiri held on and didn’t bog down under the pressure of the chasing pack.
So what worked for Lahiri?
Although there was never any doubt about his quality, a small tweak seems to have had a significant impact on Lahiri’s game. Statistically speaking, Lahiri has been one of the golf ball’s worst hitters this season. According to official data, out of 217 players, he is ranked 212and in approach shots – shots played after the tee shot to propel the ball towards the hole.
In the championship, Lahiri seemed a different player. He looked stronger than ever in this part of his room and according to golf chainwas earning more than “five and a half shots from the field with his iron game and was seventh-best among those who made the cut.”
This, Lahiri said, was due to a slight modification to his equipment. The Indian added 3.5 gram lead tape to his irons – the clubs used to hit the ball in the direction of the hole – which he says added weight to his game.
Rusty Estes, one of the respected equipment specialists who has worked with Lahiri on his clubs, told the PGA Tour website that “the extra weight gave Lahiri better face awareness and gave him a swing. more coherent”.
Lahiri said the tweak has made him more confident about what he recognizes as his “weakest link”. “My irons were pretty much the same as when I came here seven years ago. (I) said, ‘Let’s experience it.’ It can’t be worse than it is. I hit him so badly,” he said. “I was like, let’s just throw in a lead strip and see what happens, because I feel like I’m swinging good. It made a huge difference, obviously you can see that.
Was the equipment change the only factor?
Apart from the change of equipment, Lahiri displayed an attitude and fighting spirit that allowed him to withstand all the pressure. He was aggressive even in the lead and when he got into tight spots, like on the eighth hole of the last lap where he had a wild tee shot that ended in a double bogey, he fought back admirably.
Ultimately, it can be said that Lahiri’s tee shot on the eighth hole was the turning point for him. But he was “relieved” – more than happy – with his overall performance.
“I spent two years playing horribly. It’s been a long time since I was in this position and hadn’t played in a quality squad like this,” he said after the match. final round.” It’s huge because when you go through such a long lean period, you start to think, ‘man, was that a flash in the pan? What are you doing? You haven’t played well for so long. Belief takes a hit.
What does Lahiri get out of it?
In terms of rankings, Lahiri is expected to break into the top 100 in the world. He also pockets $2.18 million, one of the highest salaries for an Indian sportsman in terms of tournament prize money. The ranking points could also help him retain his status on the PGA Tour for next season.