Lahiri and Kapur Strive to Inspire a Nation
By David Shefter, USGA
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Real-life heroes aren’t formed in a vacuum, nor are they created from mortar and paper.
Such notions might work in a mythical world, but not in every-day society.
Both have already made history this week at Chambers Bay. For the first time in U.S. Open history, multiple players from India will tee it up in a U.S. Open. And the two realize it takes more than just being in the field to truly make an impact.
“Every sport grows when it has heroes,” said Lahiri, 27, who has risen to No. 45 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “You can’t be a hero out of thin air. It comes from practice and it comes from playing well in big events.”
Golf events don’t come any bigger than the U.S. Open, and for a nation where only a small percentage of the 1 billion inhabitants plays, this is a major opportunity for Lahiri and the 33-year-old Kapur.
Back home there is interest. The major newspapers, according to Kapur, are devoting half-pages to both players. Television will broadcast the championship in the wee hours of the morning – India is 12½ hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time – and social media is abuzz over the fact two Indians are in the field.
“Golf has grown significantly the last three years,” said Kapur, who is competing in his second consecutive U.S. Open, earning his spot each time through the Walton Heath sectional qualifier in England. “I’ve been receiving a lot of messages through Facebook and social media. I’ve been getting calls [from reporters]. It is big news back home.”
Kapur estimates there are between 100,000 and 150,000 golfers in the country, but said it still has an elitist reputation. Because of that, Kapur says, there aren’t enough public driving ranges or courses to encourage more growth among the masses like there is in the U.S. and other countries.
But with Kapur and now Lahiri enjoying success on the European Tour, plus the past successes of Jeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal, the first Indian to win on the PGA Tour, golf could have an encouraging future in a country where cricket and soccer dominates the headlines.
“Until a few years ago,” said Kapur, “I used to get asked, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I’d say I play golf. And they would say, ‘That’s fine, but what do you do for a living?’ That’s kind of changed to where kids are now coming up for autographs and you are doing Q and As [with media] and getting invited to a lot of places to speak. Having said that, we are still no superstars compared to the cricketers.”
Lahiri, who first took up the game at 8 through his father, a doctor in the armed forces, has made the biggest strides for Indian golf in the past three years. In 2012, he finished 10th on the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit. Two years ago, he was third and last year he was second. And then earlier this year, he posted two victories on the European Tour, winning the Hero Indian Open and Maybank Malaysian Open. The wins moved Lahiri inside the top 50 in the OWGR, earning him starts in the Masters and the U.S. Open.
Last year, he earned his way into the British Open and PGA Championship, but a bout with chicken pox derailed his chances. He played the British Open at Royal Liverpool with a 102-degree temperature and after being quarantined for three weeks his game was predictably rusty for the PGA at Valhalla.
“It was unfortunate,” said Lahiri, who owns 18 professional wins. “Nonetheless it was a great experience. For me to get through that, it gave me a lot of strength. It gave me a lot of confidence. That’s why we play golf and that’s what I love about it.”
Lahiri, who resides in Bangalore, was inspired by Singh and especially Atwal, a golfer he has befriended in the past couple of years. They proved it was possible to succeed on the global stage. In 2010, Atwal became the first Monday qualifier in 24 years to win a PGA Tour event (Wyndham Championship). Singh, meanwhile, claimed 20 professional titles, including four on the European Tour, and tied for ninth at the 2008 PGA Championship.
“He told me I am good enough to compete,” Lahiri said of Atwal. “I’m thankful to Arjun for obviously showing the way by doing it himself, and being gracious enough to show me the way.”
Kapur took an entirely different route to the European Tour. Unlike Lahiri, he came to the U.S. to attend Purdue and honed his talent through the collegiate ranks. Kapur credits that experience for paving the way for his success. He also won the individual gold medal at the 2002 Asian Games.
He turned pro in 2004 and while he’s still seeking that first breakthrough win on the European Tour, the New Delhi native has one Asian Tour victory as well as two victories on the European Challenge Tour.
This week’s U.S. Open will be his fourth major championship, but his tie for 23rd last year at Pinehurst has given Kapur optimism for another solid result.
“Last year I was up on the leaderboard for a little bit,” said Kapur. “A lot of people watched it on TV and were getting excited back home. There will be definitely a lot of people watching.
“I feel a little more comfortable. [In 2014], even the practice rounds felt like a tournament. This time around, you know what to expect.”
Rising inside the top 50 in the OWGR has enabled Lahiri to get starts in more prestigious events. Besides getting in all four majors in 2015, Lahiri has already competed in The Players Championship, three World Golf Championship events, and two other tournaments on the PGA Tour. And an even bigger event looms in 2016.
Golf will be contested in the Summer Games for the first time since 1904 and Lahiri is a leading candidate to represent India in Rio de Janeiro. Both Lahiri and Kapur said the Olympics could actually promote the game more than even the major championships, saying the general population can relate to the Games.
“Golf as a sport isn’t really recognized as a sport in a massive way,” said Lahiri. “But obviously the Olympics is the most widely watched [sporting] event. Now that golf is part of 2016 in Rio, the first part is to obviously be in it and then it’s like this week [at Chambers Bay]. You want to get into it first and then you want to make an impression.”
Being an Olympic gold medalist? Now that’s a way to be national hero.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.