Turning the corner: Despite cancellations and empty galleries, pro golf is staging a recovery in the pandemic

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Sophia Popov

Bad news is relative: cancellations of events, and news of more players testing positive for the Coronavirus no longer makes news. In that vein, readers aren’t likely to stop and think about the fact that The Hero World Challenge—an unofficial 18-player event hosted by Tiger Woods-scheduled to be held in the first week of December in Albany, Bahamas, has been called off. Or for that matter, the fact that Adam Scott is the latest player to have contracted this dastardly virus.

Your columnist, for one, was more distressed seeing the sudden drop in the quality of play by one of the most dependable and consistent players in the history of the game-Phil Mickelson. Leading up to his 50th birthday, Mickelson had been going through one of the worst patches of his career. That changed when the veteran qualified for the Champions Tour and quickly proceeded to win both events he teed it up at. It’s been really fun for me to play and compete on (PGA TOUR Champions), a lot more so than I thought it would be. I’m surprised how much fun I’m having, how much fun it is to see some of the same guys that I’ve seen for so many years and haven’t had a chance to be with them for a number of years now. I seem to get a little bit of confidence and I’m hoping to bring that over into this event…” said Mickelson on the eve of the ZOZO Championship. Just what is it about the Champions Tour that seems to mellow players down? Mickelson even paid paid tribute to none other than arch-nemesis, Woods for getting him to up his fitness game. “Looking back, I wish I had been a little bit more committed fitness?wise in the height of my career… (but) Tiger pushed me to start training a little bit more, which has helped me elongate my career.” Unfortunately Mickelson, couldn’t reprise his winning form at the event — both he and playing partner, Woods, finished way down in the field. The ZOZO Championship was won by a resurgent Patrick Cantlay who returned from an injury-related hiatus to the tour. Cantlay, who looked certain to set records when he turned pro in 2017, has not had the support he needed from his back. This time though, it held up, and the youngster pulled off a string of four birdies on five holes on the final stretch to wipe out a four-shot deficit and win by one over Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. This was Cantlay’s third PGA Tour win.

Another player who’s returned to the mix recently is our very own Anirban Lahiri. Back in the game at this week’s Bermuda Championship after a three-week hiatus, Lahiri sounded positive. “I played some good golf at this venue last year with rounds of 66 and 73 before withdrawing in the third round. It’s a pretty nice golf course. It’s unique. Obviously the biggest challenge here is the wind and I consider myself to be a pretty good wind player. I’ve had a lot of good results at windy venues and the grasses are tropical, so it’s a lot like what I’m used to playing…”

Lahiri who had a disastrous last season felt that he’s back on his game. “I feel I’m definitely close to playing my best golf. How close, I don’t know. Might be this week, might be two weeks from now. “The flip side of the lockdown has been the extended sessions Lahiri has managed to have with coach Vijay Divecha. “Obviously spending extended time with my coach back in India made a huge difference and that’s beginning to show. I trust my game a lot more, I’m hitting my irons a lot better, which has basically always been my strength but not so much so in the last couple of years.”

Lahiri had one of the most dramatic lockdown stories: in India to play the Indian Open earlier this year, the Bengaluru lad got estranged from his clubs (that were deposited at the academy he practices at) and and didn’t hit a ball for over two months. “It’s probably the longest I’ve been away from my clubs for 20 years, maybe more. I think that also gives you some perspective. It builds the hunger to come back and motivates you, something that can suffer when you have an extended period of bad golf like I did, so that was the big take-away for me,” said the seven-time international winner.

In the shadow of the unimpeded march of the Coronavirus, the show rolls on, albeit sans spectators, and often with less than full-strength fields. It’s been a pretty life-changing experience for most, but for Sophia Popov, the 28-year-old winner of the Women’s British Open, it’s been a dramatic transformation. At the end of the 2019, Popov, was competing on the Cactus Tour, an Arizona-based circuit for fledgling women’s golf pros. She entered the Open ranked 304th in the world and stared down the best players in the world to win. Today she’s in the world’s Top 25, and has a two-year exemption on the LPGA. “It’s been crazy, a little bit of a whirlwind,” Popov said. “Winning the Open was surprising not just to everyone else but to me, too. I’ve been trying to let it soak in while at the same time having a lot more on my plate. It’s changed my life in a really great way.” Popov’s $675,000 winner’s cheque for the Open didn’t even count as official earnings because she wasn’t an L.P.G.A. member. She says it felt really strange when the money was deposited into her account. “It came later in the week and you look at it and go, ‘Man, it feels like something illegal is happening on your account.’” Now that’s a heartwarming story if there ever was one. God knows we need more of those.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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