Sporting Life

Indian star offers insight into belief

Anirban Lahiri.
Anirban Lahiri.

Poor Anirban Lahiri. He didn't deserve this last week. Not on his week off from golf. The Indian is No. 1 on the Asian Tour Order of Merit, has won two European Tour events this year, came tied-fifth at the PGA Championship, qualified for the USPGA Tour, played in his first Presidents Cup team, is having indisputably the best bloody year of his 28-year-old life... and all I want to do is ask about a three-foot putt he missed one month ago.

Sure, he says. No problem, he adds. He's all this, and polite?

Reporters occasionally confuse themselves with forensic investigators and wish to return to the scene of a sporting crime and dissect it. With me it's the three-footer Lahiri missed, in front of a watching planet, at a key moment, on the final day of the Presidents Cup, which his International team just lost.

Is it haunting him? No. Did the pressure get to him? No.

Let's be clear. It's not a crime. It's only a putt. Which he hit exactly how he wanted. Not a mishit, just a misread. A short putt that stays so long in the memory that we've forgotten the shot before it, a brilliant chip from the swale to get the ball to three feet of the hole.

Anyway he will get another chance because the "must make" putt will return. One day maybe to shoot a 59, one day maybe to make a cut. "As pro athletes we are used to putting ourselves in these situations, getting into the process and executing."

Lahiri is No. 1 on the Asian Tour Order of Merit, has won two European Tour events this year, came tied-fifth at the PGA Championship, qualified for the USPGA Tour, is having indisputably the best bloody year of his 28-year-old life... and all I want to do is ask about a three-foot putt he missed one month ago in the Presidents Cup.

His mother is an English professor and he speaks in long, clear sentences, his pauses like paragraphs as he tells golfing tales. She would approve of his answers for he confesses the putt, like every part of sport, is an education.

"It teaches you humility, it tells you nothing is greater than the sport. You can do everything right and still come up short, you can do things wrong and end up on a winning side. All you can do is give it your best."

He sounds like a wandering philosopher in a testing game but wait, he cautions, he is not being fatalistic. He is talking instead of equanimity, of bringing sweat to sport but also calm.

"You have to let go of results. If you read too much into a win and feel invincible you fall down the hardest." Similarly to leave behind a missed putt with no regret is to be stronger for when the opportunity presents itself again. To wear failure well, a young man is reminding us, is to build character.

Lahiri is at a reassuring place when practice and purpose are translating into performance. Often, you can grind for months, balls hit, technique polished, and nothing. And then, something. "It's the most satisfying thing, to improve, and if I can keep this up over 15 years it's likely I can get to a place when I have achieved something."

I ask about intimidation and he makes you smile when he says: "I think I have passed the stage where I am thinking about who I am playing against." It is a statement absent of conceit but swollen with conviction. Then he tells this story.

Two years ago, asked about him, Ernie Els says that Lahiri has a lot of respect for players but he has to believe he can beat them. A month ago he plays with Els and he says the respect remains but now "it's more of me playing against a peer than a superhero".

But this evolution of the mind, this nourishing of the athlete's faith in himself, is a process. Belief is the greatest of sporting constructions and it takes a while.

Two years or so ago he played and interacted with PGA Tour players Daniel Chopra, Arjun Atwal and Jeev Milkha Singh. They told him he was good. Good enough to play out there. "In my mind," he confesses, "I didn't think so, (so) I needed this second-hand belief, this borrowed belief from them."

The more he hears them say he is good enough, the more he is convinced that he may be good enough, the more he plays and shows himself he is good enough. Something has clicked - maybe it's the sound of a valuable piece of his jigsaw sliding into place. At one point I mention that I don't want to ask if he thinks he can win a Major because the question sounds lame, but he interjects, his voice strong:

"I do."

It's this poise that is striking, this sense of polite purpose, this comfort with who he is and wants to be. On his way back to the hotel that day after the Presidents Cup, deflated surely, he still made a joke about himself regarding that putt. It earns him a hug from American Jim Furyk and this question from me:

Did you ever deliberately go to YouTube to watch that putt again?

No, he says. He only saw it once or twice in passing. He pauses. "I let go of the putt when I left the Jack Nicklaus course (in Incheon)."

Anirban Lahiri, you see, was looking only ahead. To another day, another tournament and hopefully another three-footer he just bloody well has to make.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Indian star offers insight into belief'. Print Edition | Subscribe