PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—The question was straightforward because a softball wouldn’t do. It was early in the week and Anirban Lahiri was asked what keeps him in the fight. Make no mistake, wrestling is inherent in this magnificently difficult sport, but Lahiri had been particularly into it lately, entering this Players Championship 209th in the FedEx Cup and No. 322 in the world rankings. If those numbers sound high, well, they are, considering 144 players were on the pitch. However, to play at this level, making this game a profession requires tapping into a current fueled by conviction and faith when the results say otherwise.
“The beauty of what we’re doing,” Lahiri explained, “is you’re a week away from being a PGA Tour winner. You’re a week away from being in Augusta. You’re a week away from having a two- or three-year exemption. You’re a week away from having another kind of conversation with me.
It was Tuesday. It is Sunday. Lahiri is a day of a different conversation.
A 67-73 start and five-under performance through 11 holes of the third round put Lahiri atop the standings in this weather-ravaged Players Championship.
“It’s been awesome,” Lahiri said Sunday night. “Obviously it’s good to catch the good side of the draw to start with. Yeah I think to be honest, going to bed last night I was a little scared how cold it was going to get. I don’t ‘m not used to playing in temperatures below 40, and I struggled a bit when I came out. But it was good to get back to a good process and rhythm. I did a lot of good swings today, just kept it in front of me, made good decisions.
The man made some good passes. The approach game has been the bane of his existence (212th in SG/approach, 205th in greens in regulation) this year; this week, Lahiri and his irons are set to the same channel, ranking fourth in approach and T-6 in close. He’s racked up 11 birdies and two eagles and, just as important, is keeping the big numbers at bay. There was no swing advice or change of equipment, just a change of attitude.
“I’m just happy to play well. I’m just happy to hit my irons well. I’m just happy,” Lahiri said. “When you’re in that mindset, you usually play well, and that’s what happens.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Lahiri, you’re forgiven, although calling him a stranger is unfair. Lahiri is a two-time Olympian for a nation, India, which has over a billion people. He has 18 victories around the world. I have been part of the International Presidents Cup team twice. It’s a very good career and, at 34, a career that should still have a trail.
In the same breath, Lahiri is one of the lowest ranked players in Sawgrass. He’s never won on the PGA Tour in eight seasons, and he’s missed the playoffs in two of the last three campaigns. Until three days ago he was in the desert, and while every golfer gets lost, not everyone comes back.
“I think the nature of what we’re doing, it could be – it’s unpredictable,” Lahiri said. “You just don’t know. You grind, you keep snacking, you keep working on your game, and when it clicks, it clicks. It could be this week, it could be next week. As long as it happens, and that’s the belief that you have to have, and that’s the commitment that you have to have.
“Grind” is an ubiquitous word in golf, sometimes to the point that it loses its meaning. But, boy, it’s been a chore this week. The starts, the stops, the wind, the rain, the long days on a course renowned for the chaos that lurks at every turn even in the best conditions. It took a little forethought at the start time and this rodeo is barely halfway through, we grant you that. Still, you’re not on this board without a wheelbarrow of sand and a heart full of common sense.
Lahiri knows these feelings. Unlike most players on the Tour, he doesn’t come from the country club fairways. What he played on barely constitute fairways. Lahiri was a military child, his father a doctor in the Indian Armed Forces. He played on what he could.
“I grew up with an inch and a half or so on the fairways of the army clubs where I grew up, so just seeing a ball laying flat on the ground was a bit daunting,” said Lahiri. “I had to get my dad to buy me a 7 wood because I wasn’t sure I could fly it.” On a good day, Lahiri said, the greens rolled to six.
To get from there to here, it takes someone special. He understands that he is on the verge of something so special, because that would be the rare victory that transcends itself. “It would be huge,” Lahiri said of what Monday would mean for India. “It’s not every week that you play well, but you play well in a week where people can actually see golf shots, they can see you play, that makes a bigger difference.”
But there will be plenty of time to unbox this U-Haul. Lahiri must first arrive at his destination. All that stands in the way are 16 in four shots, one of golf’s most stressful finishes, more uncertain weather and himself.
“I’m just in the moment right now,” Lahiri said. “I’m really happy, as I just said, I’m happy, I’m confident. The ball seems to go out in front of me, which hasn’t happened much in the past. I’m just going to try to do the same thing: shoot pins I’m comfortable with and clubs I’m comfortable with. When I get an uncomfortable shot, respect it and try to putt. I think that’s all I can do.
This should serve as a warning to the rest of the field. It is not a place where one says “comfort”. Again, Lahiri reiterated that he was confident against his struggles. And there are few things that can resist a man who can conquer himself.