Lahiri has lots to prove in Shanghai

By Doug Ferguson
Published on
Lahiri has lots to prove in Shanghai

SHANGHAI (AP) — One year after Anirban Lahiri made his debut in the World Golf Championships, progress is measured by how much is at stake in the HSBC Champions.

He no longer is simply happy to be at Sheshan International alongside the world's top players.

India's best golfer now has a chance to wrap up the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour. Lahiri also is No. 15 in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, so along with trying to state his case as rookie of the year, he still has a chance to work his way into the top five and qualify for the bonus pool.

And if that's not enough, it's critical for him to get his first season on the PGA Tour off to a strong start and to stay in the top 50 in the world (he's at No. 39).

"Obviously, my focus has changed," Lahiri said Wednesday with an easy smile. "The event is still really important, but the perspective is radically different. I guess the golf isn't radically different. It's the same thing. You have to go out there and do the same things. But a lot has changed in the last 12 months."

It started early in the year when Lahiri won twice in three weeks on the European Tour, which shot him into the top 50 in the world and made him eligible for the majors and the WGCs. A tie for fifth in the PGA Championship locked up a spot in the Presidents Cup.

Before heading to South Korea, the 28-year-old made a detour to the Tour where he played well enough in two events to earn a PGA Tour card. That was critical to get some rest ahead of a long stretch at the end of the year on the Asian and European tours.

Playing on two tours is difficult enough. Lahiri is trying to juggle three tours at once.

He chose to play the CIMB Classic in Malaysia last week to keep his lead on the Asian Tour and get a start on his PGA Tour season. But that meant skipping the Turkish Airlines Open, the first of four events in The Final Series on the European Tour.

"It's been a balancing act," he said. "But I think at the end of the day, if you play good, solid golf, everything else becomes secondary. All the great players play just 20 events and it's enough for them because they are good enough to do whatever they need to do. Now hopefully, that is something that I can aspire to do in the time to come."

Still, there are tough decisions ahead.

Winning the Asian Tour money title gives him a five-year exemption. His victories on the European Tour made him exempt through 2017. But his goal all along was to play the PGA Tour, and that's where his priorities lie for next season.

Whether he remains a man of three tours depends largely on how Europe alters its minimum number of tournaments required for membership.

"How extensively I play in Europe is something that I'm still considering," Lahiri said. "There's a lot of chopping and changing going on in the minimum number of events and how the criteria work, especially with the Olympics next year. The schedules are getting squeezed more and more, so there's a lot more events that are overlapping. But my focus is going to be primarily in America."

What brought Lahiri as much fame as any victory was a loss in singles to Chris Kirk, which proved to be the decisive match in the Presidents Cup. Lahiri's 4-foot birdie putt caught the lip and spun away, but he stayed longer than any International team player to answer any question and was quick to credit Kirk for making a big putt of his own.

He followed that with a runner-up finish in Macau and a tie for seventh in the Hong Kong Open.

Now he's trying to get on the kind of run that sparked him season nine months ago. He's been watching and admiring Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 21-year-old from England who won the British Masters and qualified for his first WGC this week.

"In golf, as you'll see with most players, we get on a run," Lahiri said. "When you get on a good run, you can really make it count. I had a good run early in the year and I made a big jump, and Matthew is doing the same thing. I remember playing with Jordan Spieth right here one year ago, and that was before he got on the biggest run that I've ever seen anyone get on. Runs are fantastic. Hopefully, both mine and Matt's continue."

Lahiri also played Sheshan International last year with J.B. Holmes, one of the longest hitters in the game. Lahiri has plenty of power himself — he won the Long Drive Competition at the PGA Championship this year — though he has learned the difference between what he calls "long, long and really long."

He's not in the league of Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. But he has more than enough.

"Back in India we have a term which is 'Sunday Special,' which is probably the best shot you could ever hit," Lahiri said. "If you were playing a video game, it's the one where Tiger hits it and the ball gets on fire. When I hit that, I'm probably 5 or 10 yards behind these guys. And that's pretty good."