PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Anirban Lahiri wasn’t supposed to be contending this week.
He’d missed five of seven cuts in his Players Championship career. He’d missed three of four cuts coming into the event. He’d finished no better than T40 his last 14 starts. He’d fallen outside the top 200 in the FedEx Cup and his world ranking had dropped to No. 332, among the very lowest in the field.
Lahiri, a 34-year-old Indian journeyman, was clear-eyed about his form entering the week. In a candid pre-tournament press conference he spoke on his finishes (“the last month has been a tough one”), his iron play (“I hit my irons really poorly”) and how inconsistency has made him feel (“can be irritating, can sometimes be infuriating, frustrating, a lot of those negative emotions”).
His plainspokenness was refreshing. But it was something else that set him apart: his optimism.
Asked about his struggles and his road map going forward, Lahiri answered with hope. “The beauty about what we do, Laura, is that you’re one week away from being a PGA Tour winner. You’re one week away from being at Augusta. You’re one week away from having a two, three year exemption. You’re one week away from you having a different kind of conversation with me,” he said.
The good news is that Lahiri finished Sunday at TPC Sawgrass with a one-shot lead. The bad news is the tournament is far from over.
Still, Lahiri is in the driver’s seat through 11 holes in his third round. After opening with five-under 67 on Thursday, Lahiri played the bulk of his second and third rounds in a Sunday marathon. An eagle at No. 11 salvaged a second-round 73. After a short break Lahiri headed back out for his third round and got off to a hot start with a 10-foot birdie putt at the first and a neat up-and-down for another birdie at No. 2.
That was just the beginning. Lahiri added birdies at 6, 8 and 9. He bogeyed 10 but birdied 11 — and nearly made eagle. Through 11 holes he’s five under par for his round and nine under par for the tournament, one shot ahead of Tom Hoge and Harold Varner III. It’s a tenuous lead. But it’s a lead nonetheless.
“I’m just happy that I’m playing well. I’m just happy that I’m hitting my irons well. I’m just happy,” he said. “When you’re in that state of mind, you usually play well, and that’s what’s happening.”
The happiness may well be the chicken rather than the egg — or the reverse, depending on your personal philosophy. Lahiri himself admitted early in the week that he wanted to rediscover the joy of competitive, but that joy is contingent upon performing well. On Sunday he was up to the task.
“The ball seems to be coming out in front of me, which hasn’t happened that much in the past,” he said simply.
Now what? How does he try to cling to a one-shot lead against the deepest field in golf? How does he hold off each of the 29 competitors within five shots of the lead?
“You just do what you need to do next,” he said. “Like order food, eat, go stretch, sleep. There’s not really that much to think about. I think that’s a good thing because you don’t have that much time, so you go to sleep, you wake up, you stretch, do your routine, warm up, go and hit the next shot.”
Simple as that, eh?
This isn’t Lahiri’s first time contending on Tour. He finished second at Memorial in 2017. He finished T5 at the 2015 PGA. He’s logged two wins on the DP World Tour, a handful more on the Asian Tour and played worldwide for more than a decade. But there’s no question this would be a career-defining victory.
“That goes without saying,” Lahiri agreed. “This is the next thing to winning a major, I would say.”
Contending also had Lahiri thinking of home. He spent Friday’s rain delays watching cricket. He was happy to be playing so well on a week where his countrymen could watch him. And when he was asked how TPC Sawgrass compared to the courses he played growing up, Lahiri could only laugh.
“I’ll invite you to come and play the courses I played growing up,” he said. Lahiri grew up on Army golf courses. Courses with full-time preferred lies and inch-and-a-half fairways. Greens that rolled a 6 on a good day.
“This doesn’t really compare,” he said.
Lahiri has come a long way. Now he has a long way to go.