Over the Top: True grit

Love it or not, the Masters Tournament is still the most vaunted major championship in the world

Truth is certainly more dramatic than fiction. Here you are, a professional golfer who has been going through, probably the worst phase of your professional career; your world ranking has dropped to 322nd; and, you are, not surprisingly, struggling with self-belief. To go into the final day’s play with the lead at The Player’s Championship—the much vaunted, ‘unofficial major’ on the PGA Tour—is about as nerve-wracking as it gets in the world of golf. For you to be in this situation, five long years after you contended amidst an elite field at a WGC event, is, well, a more challenging scenario than you could have dreamed up. Given that context, 34-year-old Anirban Lahiri’s seemingly nerveless performance in the final round at TPC Sawgrass, is beyond spectacular—it heralds a newfound mental strength in a player whose talent and work ethic has never been in question. Proof of Lahiri’s steely demeanour came after he’d made a double bogey five on the par-3 eighth hole on Sunday. Just as fans across India were sighing and writing off another near-win by an Indian golfer, Lahiri made a stunning eagle on the 11th hole to get right back into the mix. And then to top things off, the Indian player made a crucial birdie at one of the most pressure-filled arenas in golf—the 17th hole with the island green at Sawgrass.

It took nothing short of a career-performance by another doughty player—Cameron Smith—to keep Lahiri’s charge at bay. Smith fired a whopping 10 birdies in the final round. And just like Lahiri, delivered his best when he needed to: nowhere more so than at the final hole where he salvaged an astonishing bogey despite an errant drive that found the water, to win by one over Lahiri.

Smith’s wizardry with the flat stick is well known. At the World Golf Championships in August 2021, the Australian equalled the PGA Tour’s record of lowest number of putts in a round—18 in case you’re wondering. And when you look at the stats from last week, it’s clear that the putter got the job done—Smith had an astounding 11 strokes gained over the field on the greens. The win catapults Smith to sixth on the official world golf rankings making him the top-ranked Australian player in the world. Lahiri went, literally, overnight from the fringes of the professional ranks to back inside the Top-100 in the world.

Another man from Down-Under who’s been in the news for the past few months is Hall-of-Famer Greg Norman. The ‘Shark’ has been on the hunt for the game’s top players to poach for his new Saudi-Golf funded global golf tourney. While the league has suffered setbacks of late, with a number of top professionals publicly avowing their rejection for the rival circuit, Norman has finally announced formal creation of the league and the inaugural schedule. The eight-tournament, $255 million series—called the LIV Golf Invitational—will tee off at the Centurion Club outside of London in June this year. The format for the league is fairly unorthodox as professional events go: the 48 players will play 54 holes over three days, competing in individual and team categories. Participating players will have the luxury of confirmed paydays with no cut being applied, while shotgun starts will likely translate into a brisk pace of play and quicker rounds.

Besides the relatively relaxed schedule, the league’s biggest USP has been significantly higher purses for each event: The first seven events will have $25 million purses, $20 million for individual prizes and another $5 million for the team competition. The eighth event will offer $30 million for the top three players of the season, with another $50 million for teams in total prize funds. Rumours have abounded for weeks about players nearing the last stage of their careers jumping onto the new league—that list, however, has not been announced yet. The reasons aren’t hard to fathom— stash away a sweet nest egg before calling it a day. How this tour fares in terms of television viewership and longevity remains to be seen. It has, however, already sent the established Tours into a flurry of player-centric measures. Surely, that can’t be a bad thing? Clearly, the R&A doesn’t agree—the governing body rescinded its exemption given to the top-ranked player on the Asian Tour for the Open Championship. “We review and update our exemptions from time to time and any changes are considered carefully by our championships committee,” the R&A said in a statement. Right; obviously nothing to do with Liv Golf’s significant investment into the Asian Tour. The R&A isn’t immune to pressure, but one would have hoped for better from the game’s oldest governing body.

The spotlight in April will be focused on the other side of the pond from the British Isles. Cue: saccharine background score set to slow-motion montages of television-perfect fairways and archival historical footage of a certain private club in Georgia, Atlanta. Love it or not, the Masters Tournament is still the most vaunted Major Championship in the world. While he might have been considered a dark horse at the Player’s Championship, Smith was already one of the favourites at The Masters. The Major is statistically Smith’s strongest where he’s claimed three top-10 finishes, including a tie for second in 2020. “I think this one’s given me a lot of confidence,” Smith told reporters after his win at The Players Championship. “I think it just allows me to be creative. It almost brings out my inner kid,” Smith said of Augusta. And the kid’s got a game.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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