PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The question was direct because a softball would not suffice. It was early in the week, and Anirban Lahiri was asked what keeps him going through the struggle. Make no mistake, struggle is inherent in this magnificently difficult sport, but Lahiri had been especially riding it hard as of late, entering this Players Championship 209th in the FedEx Cup and No. 322 in the World Ranking. If those numbers sound high, well, they are, considering 144 players were in the field. Yet to play at this level, to make this game a profession requires tapping into a current powered by conviction and faith when the results say otherwise.
“The beauty about what we do,” Lahiri explained, “is that you're one week away from being a PGA Tour winner. You're one week away from being at Augusta. You're one week away from having a two-, three-year exemption. You're one week away from you having a different kind of conversation with me.”
That was Tuesday. It is Sunday. Lahiri is one day from a different conversation.
A 67-73 start and a five-under performance through 11 holes of Round 3 has Lahiri atop the leader board of this weather-wrecked Players Championship.
“It's been great,” Lahiri said Sunday night. “Obviously nice to catch the good side of the draw to start. Yeah, I think to be honest, going to bed last night I was a bit scared how cold it was going to be. I'm not used to playing temperatures sub-40, and I did struggle a little bit when I came out. But it was nice to just get back into a good process and a good rhythm. Made a lot of good swings today, just kept it in front of me, made good decisions.”
The man did make 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 tuned to the same channel, ranking fourth in approach and T-6 in proximity. He’s racked up 11 birdies and two eagles and just as importantly is keeping the big numbers at bay. There hasn’t been a swing tip or equipment change, just a change of attitude.
“I'm just happy that I'm playing well. I'm just happy that I'm hitting my irons well. I'm just happy,” Lahiri said. “When you are in that state of mind, you usually play well, and that's what's happening.”
Lahiri has played on two International Presidents Cup teams but is still searching for his first PGA Tour victory.
If you’re unfamiliar with Lahiri you are forgiven, although to call him an unknown is unfair. Lahiri’s a two-time Olympian for a nation, India, that boasts more than a billion people. He has 18 victories across the globe. Been on the International Presidents Cup squad twice. That is a pretty damn good career and, at age 34, a career that should have some runway left.
In that same breath, Lahiri is one of the lowest-ranked players at Sawgrass. He’s never won on the PGA Tour across eight seasons and he’s missed the playoffs in two of the past three campaigns. Until three days ago he was in the wilderness, and while every golfer gets lost, not everyone comes back.
“I think the nature of what we do, it could be—it's unpredictable,” Lahiri said. “You just don't know. You grind away, you keep chipping away, 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 you've got to have, and that's the commitment you've got to have.”
“Grind” is a ubiquitous word in golf, sometimes so that it loses its meaning. But, boy, has it been a grind this week. The starts, the stops, the wind, the rain, the long days on a course renowned for the chaos that hides at every turn even in the best of conditions. A bit of tee-time providence was needed and this rodeo is barely past the halfway point, we grant you that. Still, you’re not on this board without a wheelbarrow of grit and a heart trim in gumption.
Lahiri knows those sentiments. Unlike most tour players he does not come from country club fairways. What he played on barely constitute fairways. Lahiri was a military kid, his dad a physician in India’s armed forces. He played on what he could.
“I grew up with an inch and a half pretty much on the fairways at the army clubs I grew up, so just seeing a ball sitting down flat on the ground was a little intimidating,” Lahiri said. “I had to ask my dad to buy me a 7-wood because I wasn't sure I could get it up in the air.” On a good day, Lahiri said, the greens rolled at a six.
To get from there to here takes a special someone. He understands he’s on the precipice of something just as special, for his would be the rare win that transcends self. “It would be huge,” Lahiri said 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, it makes a bigger difference.”
But there will be plenty of time to unpack that U-Haul. Lahiri has to get to the destination first. All that stands in the way are 16 players within four shots, one of the most pressure-packed finishes in golf, more iffy weather, and himself.
“I'm just being in the moment right now,” Lahiri said. “I'm really happy—like I just mentioned, I'm happy, I'm confident. The ball seems to be coming out in front of me, which hasn't happened that much in the past. I'm just going to try and do the same thing: Fire at pins that I'm comfortable with and clubs that I'm comfortable with. When I get an uncomfortable shot then just respect it and try and make a putt. I think that's all I can do.”
That should serve as a warning to the rest of the field. This is not a place where “comfort” is said. Then again, Lahiri reitereated he was confident against his struggles. And there is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.