Anirban Lahiri and Udayan Mane are not just fighting for an Olympic medal in the men’s golf competition this week – they are desperate to put golf firmly on the map in their native India.
The Indian duo will carry their nation’s challenge at Kasumigaseki Country Club beginning on Thursday, knowing fully well an unprecedented medal in golf would do wonders in growing the sport and enticing greater support in their cricket-mad homeland.
“It will mean that the face of golf will change permanently,” said Mane, who is making his Olympics debut.
“Right now, there is a select amount of people who know what golf is in our country. If we can win a medal, people will know what golf is, all the 1.2 billion people in India. There’ll definitely be more kids taking up golf as there are these new opportunities staring at them. It will change how everyone looks at golf in India. Cricket will always be No. 1 but we’ll at least be able to shorten the gap.”
Lahiri is on a quest for redemption in Tokyo after finishing 57th out of 60 golfers in Rio 2016. Back then, he was playing with an injury but the PGA Tour regular enters the week in good form following a top-three finish at the Barbasol Open for his best finish of the season.
"If we can win a medal, people will know what golf is, all the 1.2 billion people in India. There’ll definitely be more kids taking up golf as there are these new opportunities staring at them." - Udayan Mane.
“It’ll be huge,” said Lahiri on the prospect of what a medal would do for India.
“As you can imagine, it’s a big deal. The Olympics is a big deal. We had our first silver (women’s weightlifting) on the first day of the Games, which was the first time it’s happened. I’m beginning to see the ripples beginning to take effect at home and I can feel how it will boost that sport positively and I would love for it to happen in golf. This is a great opportunity to have a first with golf … for us to change the perception and attitude.
“I definitely have a lot more intent, more focus, more belief and definitely more confidence. To compare last time and this time, it’s totally different. I came with an injury and was coming off the back of some WDs going into Rio. Feels like I’m moving in the right direction with my golf and with my body. I think it’s good timing for me.”
Mane, a 30-year-old with 11 victories on the domestic circuit, grew up competing in swimming and basketball before being bitten by the golf bug which saw him pursuing the sport as a career. Getting on the flight to Tokyo was a dream come true after he qualified as the 60th player when entries closed last month.
“It feels surreal, it feels fulfilling and I feel proud. I am still in shock really and there’s a cocktail of feelings in my body that I can’t express through words fully yet. By the time the first round arrives, I would know what I’m feeling,” he beamed.
Staying with the Indian contingent at the Games Village has provided Mane with an experience of a lifetime and opened up his eyes as well seeing how other Olympians prepare themselves for competition.
“I’ve definitely realised one thing … I’ve got to work much harder on my fitness seeing all the athletes over there. The atmosphere is really intense, and everyone is out there to win something for their country and make their country proud. The intensity at the village where everyone is trying to peak at the right moment is pretty cool to watch,” he said.
“I spoke to a few Norwegian women’s weightlifters and they had more muscles than I do! They were ripped and were as tall as I am. They were more curious about golf than anything else, asking me like how we play 18 holes and that was pretty cool. I met a few other Indian athletes and they’re so dedicated in what they want to do. They are so focused on what they want to achieve that you can learn from them.”
Donning India’s tri-colours will provide the fire in the belly for Lahiri and Mane as they seek podium finishes. “It always invokes the feeling of going beyond yourself. You’re not here for yourself this week. Anirban Lahiri is not playing for Anirban Lahiri. I’m playing for India, for my motherland,” he said.
“You’re thinking of going beyond what you think is your best. Definitely wearing your nation’s colours make a difference. It’s a hugely positive thing. I believe I have experience, the game and fortitude to do what is needed. I want to give myself the opportunity come Sunday. That’s what I’m here to do and that’s all I’m thinking about.”