Lahiri: PGA Tour restart will set the template for resumption of golf

WION Web Team
New Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Digvijay Singh DeoUpdated: Jun 08, 2020, 04:57 PM IST


Story highlights

PGA Tour card holder and Indian golfer Anirban Lahiri in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about variety of things ranging from resumption of practice, life in lockdown, PGA Tour restart, players' form, Ryder Cup and much more.

PGA Tour card holder and Indian golfer Anirban Lahiri in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about variety of things ranging from resumption of practice, life in lockdown, PGA Tour restart, players' form, Ryder Cup and much more.

Digvijay Singh Deo: Anirban when I messaged you this morning you were set to tee off for a round, so how relieved are you to get back to playing again?

Anirban Lahiri: It's great to be back playing again. It was a huge relief when I got the clubs out. This lockdown period has been very tough for us athletes because our lives are centred around sport and it was suddenly taken away from us. So it was great to get back to what I love doing.

DSD: Was it an unfamiliar feeling when you hit that golf balls for the first time and did you hit it straight down the fairway?

Anirban Lahiri: It felt extremely strange, I don't think I have ever had so much time away from golf since I was in school. It almost felt like I was returning from my summer vacations in school because I didn't have any golf clubs back then. I was just happy to be back playing. Obviously it will take some time to return to my peak skill level.

DSD: Now usually such a long period without any action happens only when one is seriously injured, so how did you cope through this lockdown phase?

Anirban Lahiri: I don't believe the lockdown has been a terrible period for me as I got to spend some quality time with my 15-month old daughter. I also used this time to read and just get some much-needed rest. It has been a very hectic last five years for me on the PGA Tour, I have constantly been travelling. So it was great to be able to relax for a while, but that too got frustrating after about 30 days. I have been trying to stay fit by doing yoga, working out and eating healthy.

DSD: For you personally, a chance to introspect and plot a course to get back to your best form and also a way up the rankings. Also with the Olympics now a year away there is enough time to get back into the mix.

Anirban Lahiri: Before the scheduled Indian Open in March, my coach and I had drawn up a phase-wise plan to improve certain areas of my game that needed attention, which would help me get back to my best. My performances over the last two years have been extremely disappointing. We were in phase one of that plan when the lockdown began. Now that I have started playing a bit of golf again, I'm in touch with my coach. My participation in PGA Tour events depends on when international travel will resume. I would also like to spend 15 days with my coach in Ahmedabad, where he's based so that I can work on certain aspects of my game before I return to competitive golf. The Olympic postponement is actually a blessing for me because it gives me more time to secure qualification. This lockdown period has brought a lot of positives in my life and I will try to build on them. 

Anirban Lahiri

DSD: You were in India when the PGA Tour abruptly shut down during the Players' Championships, at that time it was just a temporary break but perhaps no one had an idea of what they were dealing with.

Anirban Lahiri: The coronavirus crisis has affected all industries in the world, including sport. But hats off to the PGA Tour for being so proactive and putting a proper schedule out for the players. The PGA is one of the few major sporting organisations which has released a detailed plan to get the sport up and running. I have been involved in some form in the decision-making process and it has been a very difficult period for the PGA Tour. There are a lot of stakeholders in the game and their safety must be the priority. No one could have predicted the extent to which sport and life in general, would be affected by the crisis .it is good to see that there are signs of a return to some sort of normalcy, at least in golf. When the tour resumes, it will probably be a 'new normal' and it'll be interesting to see how the sport adapts. Hopefully, everything will go smoothly and the PGA Tour could also be a model for other sports to follow amid the coronavirus pandemic. I'm disappointed that I'm not going to be part of the tour right from the get-go, but I'm delighted that I'll get to see some live golf again.

DSD: Is it safe to resume the PGA Tour in the USA, given the massive health crisis the country is in.

Anirban Lahiri: I have been part of the players' advisory council for the last three years and i must say that the pga tour has left no stone unturned in trying to set up an environment where everyone involved in the tour can stay as safe as possible in the current climate. There are extremely strict health protocols in place at every step. Players and caddies will be tested for the coronavirus before travelling to the event, upon arrival and also just before the tournament begins. They are going to stay in designated hotels and no family members are allowed to travel with them. Only one coach can accompany the player to the events. Chartered flights have been organised for travel between events, which will only carry essential personnel. These protocols are going to be followed for the first four events after the hiatus. There have been hours of work and a lot of deliberation after which the PGA Tour has come up with these safety measures. I feel that this is the safest possible environment that can be created for players, given the current situation. Obviously it is impossible to guarantee 100% safety of all individuals, there are still chances of people contracting the virus. In fact, there are protocols in place in case an individual on the tour contracts the virus during the event. All contingencies have been covered by the PGA Tour. The players obviously want to get back to action and earn their living, but the last thing they want is to contract the virus and get it home. I think most of the players' concerns have been addressed by the tour and now it is just a case of executing the measures and hoping everything goes well. If I were in America and able to travel to the events, I would definitely play.

DSD: Now the PGA Tour is primarily an American Tour but obviously the biggest and most prestigious professional tour in the world. Now unlike tennis, they do not need everyone to be available before resuming. But it is players like you who are from abroad that will have a problem getting into the US, it's not really fair on the non-American players.

Anirban Lahiri: That's the reality of the situation, it is certainly unfair for certain players but these are unprecedented times and certain compromises have to made. Although to tackle that situation, the PGA Tour has guaranteed that those players who were eligible to play on the tour in 2020, will retain their rights for the 2021 season. The European tour is also having six events in the UK at the start of its season and most countries are going to have mandatory quarantine protocols in place even for athletes, in order to protect the greater population. I don't think any athletes will be exempted from those quarantine periods. The massive advantage that the PGA Tour has is that it can hold the entire season in the USA.

Anirban Lahiri

It might not be fair on players living outside the US, but this is the best we can do at the moment. I can't participate in the first few events of the tour but I'm not complaining because I realise that the sport needs to resume in some form, it is about survival and getting through this tough phase. That is the primary concern. There are still some players who are uncomfortable playing in these circumstances, and it is their right to choose not to play. The ultimate choice to compete for lies with the player and no one has the right to judge that decision. It's a completely personal choice. Also, the other tours are looking at the PGA Tour to set the standard in terms of how to resume golf amid the pandemic. I know that the Asian Tour is definitely employing that strategy. In a sense, the PGA Tour is going to be the industry leader in setting a template for the sport to resume. There are always going to be different opinions, but personally I want to see the sport restart sooner rather than later.

DSD: At some point, you have to get back so then are you looking at a long stint in America till the end of the year because of these quarantine regulations.

Anirban Lahiri: I'm definitely going to have to be in the US for a while, whenever I go there. At some point, I will have to return to America because I live there. I love it here in India and this has almost been like a holiday to me because I'm not working. The problem I have right now is that I have no goal to work towards in a certain time frame, I don't know when flights will resume and when I'll be able to get back to playing competitive golf. As soon as I get a definite timeline, I will start mental and physical preparation for my return to action. Any athlete has to be in the right frame of mind to be able to prepare for an event, it is difficult to do so without a fixed deadline. I am patiently waiting for some decision to be made on international travel.

DSD: The action resume at the Charles Schwab Challenge and there's the stellar lineup on the cards. Does that just show the desperation of everyone to get back to playing again?

Anirban Lahiri: I spoke to some of the golfers who were part of the players' advisory council, including Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, and all of them just wanted to get back to the course again. It is how us golfers earn our living and not playing for 3-4 months is very hard on us as competitive athletes. It gets frustrating after a certain point of time and that's why we're seeing such a star-studded entry list at the first tournament after the break. We might see very strong fields heading into the other tournaments as well because so many events have been lost and players are desperate to pick up their ranking points in order to qualify for the fed-ex cup.

DSD: Most of the American golfers stay on golf courses and have been probably playing more regularly than say the likes of you. But there also has been a lack of competition. So are we going to see some strange names up the leaderboard?

Anirban Lahiri: Players will certainly be a bit rusty in the first few rounds, but I don't think it will last very long. Most of my friends in the US have continued to play golf because the lockdown measures there were nowhere near as strict as the restrictions in India. The situation in India would have been exponentially worse if such stringent measures would not have been adopted. I don't feel that we will see a lower standard of golf, we might get to see the depth in the PGA Tour with some of the lesser-known players coming to the fore and doing well, or it might be normal service for the likes of Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. It is hard to say but I don't think the overall standard of golf will drop substantially. As far as I know, no golf course in the US was shut for more than two weeks. Despite the situation being so grave in America, golf courses were still open. A lot of the pros must have practised together which also might be a big help to them.

Anirban Lahiri

DSD: Actually more than us it is professionals like you who would be able to pick up on minute details. Did you get a chance to watch some of the charity matches which featured the likes Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson?

Anirban Lahiri: I didn't watch any of the exhibition games. At the end of the day, they are just charity matches and they have got absolutely no correlation with what you'll see in competitive tournaments. Some of the golfers might hit great shots, but that isn't a reflection on how they will perform at the proper tour events, it's a completely different ball game.

DSD: Ryder Cup remains a huge talking point, you have played in team competitions before and you know how significant the atmosphere is, some like Ian Poulter thrive off do you see it being held without fans or pushed back?

Anirban Lahiri: Team Europe would certainly prefer the Ryder Cup to be played without fans because it is happening in America. The golf course at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, is one of my favourites and it is ideal for match-play. I would personally not want to be in a team competition without fans. Team events are the only ones which come closest to golf becoming a stadium sport. There are fans at regular events as well but there is a special atmosphere that is created by fans during team competitions.