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Lahiri's different strokes a way to stay in the game

Lahiri reads a putt during The Players Championship in May. At the PGA Championship in 2015, he became the first native of India with a top-five finish in a major. Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR

Last June, Anirban Lahiri finished second at The Memorial tournament in Ohio, part of the PGA Tour. What he did next surprised most golf fans: He took ten days off for a Vipassana meditation camp in Shelburne Falls in Massachusetts, a place without cell phones or access to e-mails.

It was bang in the middle of peak season and, with form and momentum on his side, it probably cost Lahiri - the sole Indian on the PGA Tour - a place in the US Open qualifier.

Yet, it's only the latest example of Lahiri (30) thinking out of the box to retain his place on the hugely competitive tour. To be not merely a "regular tour player", but one of the best.

For instance, after one year on the PGA Tour, Lahiri purchased a house in West Palm Beach. Even established European Tour stars prefer to set up a permanent US base only after a few experimental years there.

He even gave up his European Tour card, the second richest tour in the world, and a back-up option for most players. And just when it looked like he was showing signs of settling down, Lahiri parted ways with Srixon, his equipment manufacturers for his entire professional life of more than 10 years, and signed up with Callaway.

He took an extended break towards the end of the year, skipping events offering lucrative appearance fees and guaranteed prize money. Instead, Lahiri traveled to Ahmedabad and spent 20 days with his coach Vijay Divecha, mixing his own training with long hours of clinics, coaching and talks with junior golfers.

"All the decisions you've mentioned, basically revolve around one thing - I want to play the best golf that I can play, and I want to be the best person that I can be," said Lahiri, speaking from Kuala Lumpur, where he's participating in the EurAsia Cup.

"There are times when not taking part in a tournament and taking part in another activity, will enable me to play the best golf I can. If that means going for a meditation course in the middle of the season, or spending time with junior golfers and my coach, so be it."

After overcoming the usual struggles in his rookie year (2015-16), Lahiri is now an established name in the US. The World No. 68 finished 51st in the FedEx Cup rankings in the 2016-17 season and was the star of the Internationals in their disastrous Presidents Cup outing.

A tied second at The Memorial and tied third at the CIMB Classic ensured the most fruitful season in his short PGA Tour career. But the success still wasn't anywhere close to what Lahiri expected; he did not qualify for six out of the eight majors and World Golf Championship events.

"After the Memorial, given my form and confidence, I was asked why I was not going for the US Open qualifier. But I felt at that point of time, it was more important for me to get a perspective on what was going through in my mind. There were a few factors in my life that were troubling me and I needed to sort those out.

"I am an emotional person, but I am also very practical person. When something disturbs me at a deeper level, it doesn't allow me to play with freedom.

"Not playing the tournaments, or buying a house in the US, or the trip to Ahmedabad are all decisions to put me in the best mental shape possible. The truth is, all of us can play golf, but it is the player who is in a good mental space, who wins.

"It [the Ahmedabad trip] was basically me trying to reconnect with who I really am, where I have come from. Yes, I am living in America, playing on the PGA Tour, where we have a privileged life and play on amazing courses and practice at the best facilities possible. But somewhere deep down, there is also a sense of disillusionment.

"I almost find it difficult to hit golf balls on those perfectly manicured ranges. I cannot perceive depth. Growing up, I have always hit balls from a shag to a forecaddie. I am a very visual and touch player and I needed to come back and do a bit of that again."

Lahiri also spoke about giving back to the system that had nurtured him. "It was amazing spending time with the kids, giving them lessons, talking to them, watching them. Some of them reminded me of myself - the struggles I have gone through.

"They looked at me the same way I looked at Jeev (Milkha Singh) or Arjun (Atwal) a decade ago. I felt if I speak to them and spend time with them, they will realise that not many years ago, I was in a position similar to them. It tells them what is possible. It's very important and I think it is my responsibility to give back to the game that has made me, and help the game grow."

Tour players can be extremely finicky about changing their equipment, but Lahiri justified his change of clubs and ball.

"It was more about exploring the possibilities with other equipment out there and how it could help me," he explained.

"It was a major decision to sort of go outside my comfort zone, but I tested Callaway along with a few others and I was very impressed with the variety they had to offer, especially my style and kind of equipment.

"I am very old school, I play blades, I don't like heavy clubs, and even with my putter I am not conventional. I like smaller heads, curved blade putters. I am very picky with my wedges. I met with Roger Cleveland (wedge designer) and the Odyssey putter team. The entire experience with the team was fantastic.

"I was a little apprehensive about a new ball at the start, but they hired Rock Ishi (golf ball designer), who is a legend. He came on board with Callaway and completely revamped their ball division. I tested a few of their prototypes and was actually shocked how good they were.

"I'd say I am almost 85-90 per cent there with my equipment, but it is very exciting."

Lahiri turned vegan for a fortnight and then vegetarian for a month. He now has a carefully regimented diet and has given up on another of his favourites - milk. The people most disturbed by his new eating habits are father Tushar and mother Navanita.

"My dad likes to cook and he is at his wit's end on what to prepare for me. Everyone thinks I am making a sacrifice for my career, but it's not a sacrifice at all."

What prompted his decision?

"I became aware, a couple of years ago, that I wasn't strong enough or fit enough to compete at the highest level. Losing weight is not the only thing I am trying to do. I want to get leaner, stronger and more athletic. There are two goals: injury prevention and maintaining my efficiency eight-ten years from now.

"The (knee) injury I had around the Rio Olympics really hit me hard. That should not have happened to me at the age of 28. What didn't help was the number of tournaments I played preceding that. I learned from that injury about my physical fitness and also about my playing schedule.

"What I have done, I do not expect others to do, because this is my journey. These are not decisions a regular Tour player would take, but I don't want to be a regular Tour player. I want to be one of the best."

(Joy Chakravarty is a Dubai-based golf journalist who has followed Indian golf for the past 22 years. He has covered 16 majors and over 100 international tournaments)