It was during the days when Lahiri was establishing himself on the Asian Tour while Sharma was dreaming of joining his idol on golf’s professional trail. Both players share close ties as it was Lahiri’s father, Dr Tushar Lahiri, who had encouraged Sharma’s father, Col (retd) Mohan Lal Sharma, to let a young Shubhankar learn the game of golf all those years back.
Separated by a nine-year age gap, the 31-year-old Lahiri has served as an inspiration for Sharma, 22, and this week, they will enjoy a rare opportunity to team up for the first time at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, the 27th event on the PGA TOUR’s 2018-19 Schedule.
The US$7.3 million tournament is unique as it will feature 80 two-man teams who will play the Fourball (Best Ball) format in the first and third rounds and Foursomes (alternate shot) in the second and final rounds at TPC Louisiana.
The significance of their partnership is not lost as the Presidents Cup, an event which Lahiri has represented the International Team in the last two editions will be played at Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Australia in December. Both Indians dream of playing together in the premier team competition against the United States, whether it’s later this year or in the years to come.
“We could be playing World Cups together, the Olympics together and the Presidents Cup together. There could be a partnership in team golf between the two of us and I’m very excited,” said Lahiri, now established on the PGA TOUR.
“It takes work to build a good partnership and I see the potential between us over a longer period of time. We are very similar in how we play, he’s very consistent, he’s young … so young that it’s always fun to play with someone so young in terms of age as you’re fearless. He goes for pins and he goes straight at every flag. That’s his nature. He believes he can pull off the shots, he’s got the confidence and ability to back up his shots. It’s fun.”
Sharma and Lahiri were initially meant to first team up at the ISPS HANDA Melbourne World Cup of Golf last November but the former withdrew to focus on the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit race, which he subsequently won to join Lahiri as only one of five Indian golfers to achieve the feat to date.
Sharma, who holds two European Tour wins, makes no bones about wanting to join Lahiri on the PGA TOUR very soon and delivered some eye-catching performances at last year’s World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship and CIMB Classic in Malaysia, where he led or co-led into the final rounds before finishing T9 and T10 respectively.
“It’s always nice to catch up with Anirban, always good to hear his advice,” said Sharma. “He’s played at the highest stage on the PGA TOUR. He’s got a good overall game, can go low which is his strength.
“He’s influenced me a lot. I feel it can be a great partnership. We communicate really well, there are no egos. We’re great friends and we always share things. He’s so nice and I’ll listen to him and take his advice. If we get into the Presidents Cup, that would be the dream but we have to both play well to get there.”
Currently, Lahiri and Sharma are well behind in the International Team standings. Both players continue to search for missing sparks in their games but as the saying goes, it only takes one good week in golf to turn the corner.
During THE PLAYERS Championship last month, Lahiri revealed the need for him to simply focus on playing good golf rather than establishing goals.
“The Presidents Cup is on my radar but I’ll be honest. I’ve made no world ranking points in the last eight months. I’ve got to focus on playing golf. My wife reminded me of 2015 when we played in our first PGA Championship at Valhalla. We didn’t know that there was a (International Team points) list, didn’t know what the qualifying was. You just wanted to play good golf. Everything else is a by-product. That’s what I have to go back to doing,” said Lahiri, who has one top-10 in the 2018-19 season.
Sharma enters the Zurich Classic of New Orleans fresh off a three-week break and in search of good form as well following three top-30s on the European Tour this year. Hanging out with Lahiri in New Orleans, along with other Presidents Cup International Team hopefuls including team captain Ernie Els, could well deliver the fire needed for the Indian duo to strike top form.
A piece of advice shared by Lahiri some years ago may well be heeded by both of them this week. Sharma said: “I remember one of the tournaments at home some years ago when I missed the cut and decided to walk with him during the weekend. It was fun to see Anirban play … he was telling me how he had a great start and then messed things up. He’d told me to be patient, put in the hard work and I can be a good player. He always has good things to say.”
Ultimately, Lahiri and Sharma need to remain patient before enjoying success again and they know what they do abroad will inspire a new generation of Indian golfers.
“Every time I go back, there’s more awareness,” said Lahiri. “More kids are playing the game now. Over the last three or four years, we’ve seen a lot of kids stepping up from the Indian Tour onto the Asian Tour and with how Shubhankar has played, another new generation of kids is getting inspired. It’s great, and that cycle is continuing in the right direction. Hopefully, we churn out more kids and talent. We have a lot of potential.”
Captain Els, who took over the team leadership from Nick Price last year, has plenty of admiration for both Indians. “Anirban has become a real steely player in the team. I remember last year, we were almost shut out and we almost played the singles without meaning. But he made an unbelievable putt on Saturday to keep the matches alive. He showed a lot of character there,” said Els.
“He’s (Sharma) won a few times around the world in one year and he’s only 22 years old,” added the South African legend.