Scott Fowler

Indian golfer Anirban Lahiri shoots 66 in his Quail Hollow debut

There is a story behind every name on a golf leader board, no matter how well known or how obscure the golfer.

Unless you follow golf closely, you probably don’t know the story of Anirban Lahiri, who is from India and sits alone in third place entering Friday’s second round.

In the first competitive round he ever played at the Wells Fargo Championship, Lahiri shot a 66 Thursday and is one shot off the lead. He had six birdies and no bogeys on a British Open sort of day at Quail Hollow Club, where the rain and wind even got to players like defending champion Rory McIlroy.

Lahiri is a rarity in golf. He grew up in a country of about 1.25 billion people – about four times the population of America. But golf in India is an afterthought compared to the country’s most popular sport – cricket.

There are only a handful of public golf courses in all of India, and there aren’t many golf fans, either. Lahiri believes the best chance he has for getting wide exposure in his home country is to win a medal while representing India in golf at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“How many people watch the Olympics in India?” Lahiri said. “I would say eight or nine out of 10 people. How many people watch the Masters or The Open championship? Probably one out of 100.”

Yet here Lahiri is, competing full time on the PGA Tour after grabbing 15 wins worldwide. Although he has never won on the PGA Tour and has finished in the top 10 just once, Lahiri is ranked No. 55 in the world because he has had strong results in other countries.

Father, a doctor, taught him golf

At 28, Lahiri and his wife just moved to Florida so that he could avoid the frequent 20-hour flights he was taking back and forth from India to compete on both the European and PGA Tours.

“Last year I did six trips with a minimum of 20 hours flying time one way,” Lahiri said. “That just killed me. ...I was exhausted out of my brain.”

Thus the move to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., which Lahiri completed right after playing in this year’s Masters (he finished tied for 42nd).

Florida is a long way from India, where Lahiri grew up playing on private golf courses designed for the military. His father had access to the private courses because he was a military doctor. Rather than push his son into medicine as well, Lahiri’s father encouraged his son to pursue golf when his talent became obvious.

It was an unusual path in a country where education and intellect is valued far more than sport, according to Lahiri. For years, before he started playing junior tournaments, Lahiri hardly ever saw other children playing golf.

“Besides cricket, there are a few other sports that are beginning to grow in India,” Lahiri said. “Tennis is getting popular. Golf. In badminton, India has one of the best female players in the world, so that’s catching on. But there’s no comparison in the scale, in how sports are promoted or marketed.

“You know how you have TV channels dedicated to baseball, to football, to basketball and to golf in America?” Lahiri continued. “We haven’t got to a stage where you can do that with sports in India. It’s just not the Indian way. We’re education-driven.”

Meditates 3-4 times per week

Lahiri is also a practitioner of Vipassana, a very introspective form of meditation.

“It helps,” Lahiri said. “But I don’t do it for my golf. ... My parents did it and found a big improvement in their quality of life, so I went later when I was 17 to see what it was all about. I wish I could do it every day. That’s the goal. But if I can do three to four sessions in a week, it keeps me quite stable. I try to sit for at least half an hour for each session.”

Lahiri’s only top-10 finish on the PGA Tour was a big one – he tied for fifth at the 2015 PGA Championship. If he putts like he did Thursday, he might get another this week.

“He absolutely flushed it all day and really putted well,” playing partner William McGirt said of Lahiri’s round. “He made a lot of 8- to 15-footers with significant break. He rolled it really well.”

Lahiri is not the first Indian golfer to break through on the PGA Tour. In 2010, Arjun Atwal became the first player from India to win a PGA Tour event. In 2007, Jeev Milkha Singh was the first Indian golfer to participate in the Masters.

But Lahiri has gotten to the PGA Tour earlier in his career than those two men did. He has a chance to become the best Indian golfer ever. First, though, he has three more rounds in Charlotte to play as he tries to become one of the most unlikely Wells Fargo champions ever.