Strokeplay golf, it’s often argued, is a lonely pursuit. In this format, even though you are surrounded by a lot of people – the crowd and fellow participants – there’s no clear opponent, so to speak, across the net, or 22 yards away, or in the blue/red corner. Your biggest foes are in your head – self doubt – and beneath your feet – the course. Often they tag team, with the latter fomenting the former.
And so, all 144 players at the $1.75 million Hero Indian Open beginning on Thursday will, in theory, be up against each other, but in reality their primary aim will be to conquer the imposing Gary Player course at DLF Golf and Country Club. The fairways here are unforgiving – a water hazard or a quarry is an ever-present threat.
The greens are hard, fast and undulating – even the slightest error in judgment can cost a shot, if not two. Nothing perhaps captures the challenge that this course presents better than the beautiful but intimidating par-four 17th. Here you are facing an uphill approach shot, but can hardly see the putting surface atop a mound. If you overhit, the ball might roll into the ravine. And if you lay up short, it might even come rolling back right at your feet.
Of course, most players in the field would have played on tough layouts before, so what’s the big deal here? The difference is the lack of familiarity. This year, the Indian Open has left its home, the Delhi Golf Course (DGC), and gone 30 kilometres south. And while this venue has previously hosted the Open — in 2009 — as well as a slew of other big tournaments, they were all played on the more benign Arnold Palmer course. This Gary Player-designed layout has come up recently and is hosting its first men’s tournament.
“I think it’s a blank sheet for everyone,” says Anirban Lahiri, who won the tournament at the DGC in 2015. “Nobody really knows what to expect. At least as far as the whole field is concerned, no one is going out there saying ‘I’ve got to shoot a number’. You are going to try to gauge it as you go along.”
Nevertheless, Lahiri wagers that anyone who can strike the ball well will have a good chance here. “The dynamics of it is very different from the Delhi Golf Club, which has been the home of the Indian Open for many years. You do need length, to be able to control the ball in the wind. You need to be able to shape it, if it’s going to blow 20-30km an hour with side winds. It’s going to need a lot more versatility. I keep saying it’s a ball striker’s golf course. It’s not necessarily a European’s or Indian’s or American’s golf course.”
World No.73 Lahiri, who now plays on the US PGA Tour, has a formidable record at the Open. In the last six editions, besides his title win the year before last, he has finished second (or tied second) twice and tied third once. Over the last three editions, Lahiri has had some memorable duels with SSP Chawrasia. Together, they have practically transformed Indian Open Sundays into one-on-one matchplay events. While the duo tied for the second spot in 2013, Lahiri pipped Chawrasia to the post in 2015. The affable Kolkatan reversed the result last year en route to his maiden Indian Open title.
“Obviously the Indian Open brings out the best in him,” says Lahiri of the defending champion. “He is really gritty, he’s like a bulldog. He gets in there and doesn’t let go. And that’s a really good quality to have, especially on this golf course. When the going gets tough, you need to just keep it in play out there. I hope he’ll have a good week, but there are a whole bunch of players here who have a great chance.”
In that bunch are Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello, who at World No. 25 is the highest-ranked played in the field. One of the most consistent players in the world over the last two years, Rafa, however, hasn’t won a tournament in five years. Then there is Australian Scott Hend (World No.69), who topped the Asian Tour money list last year. But they face a strong challenge from the home-grown players. In the last two decades, there has been an Indian winner on nine occasions. Hend, though, cautions that there may not be any home advantage this time around.
“I think it’s going to be tough for these guys, too, as I’m not sure how many times they’ve played this golf course. They’ve not played here 100 times or 150 times, they’re learning like we are,” he says.