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Not just blind faith: Lahiri can sense his game turning around

Joy Chakravarty

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Dubai: Pebble Beach Golf Links may be one of the most venerated golf courses in the United States, and one that hosts a PGA Tour event—the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am—annually, but somehow, it never became a part of Anirban Lahiri’s schedule. It will all change next week after the Indian ace qualified for the third major of the season, the U.S. Open.

Finishing second in the Sectional Qualifier at Columbus, Ohio—which usually features the strongest field as most PGA Tour members compete at The Memorial and head there—resulted in a most welcome change of plan for the 31-year-old, who was otherwise staring at a two-week break at a time when playing tournaments was his top priority.

It’s been a lean year for Lahiri, who has dropped to No. 245 in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) with just three PGA Tour events to show meagre OWGR points against. More importantly, he has slipped to No. 166 in the FedEx Cup standing after missing five cuts in 12 starts this year and not a single top-10 since the Mayakoba Classic in November.

By the end of the regular season—Wyndham Championship (Aug 1-4)—he needs to get back to inside the top-125 to secure his PGA Tour playing rights for 2019-20.

The good news ahead of the U.S. Open is that Lahiri is slowly but surely getting back into form. The cornerstone of his game is his iron play, and there have been enough indicators that after struggling for more than six months, he has rediscovered his mojo.

Lahiri finished tied 52nd with a score of 1-over par at the Memorial, but made a whopping 18 birdies in those four rounds. And then, at the grueling 36-hole US Open Sectionals, he added 14 more in his first 29 holes (he parred his last seven holes in the 10-under par effort). That’s an incredible 32 birdies in last 101 holes – almost at a rate of one every third hole.

U.S. Open venue—Pebble Beach—is not only a scenic golf course but it also challenges the skills of pros.

“The frustrating part is not that I am unable to put together a score despite making so many birdies. You can never be unhappy about birdies, but it is definitely bugging that I am still making bogeys. I am working hard on eliminating them from my game. However, I can feel that my game is trending in the right direction and this is the best that I have played in a long time,” said Lahiri, who will extend his Indian record of playing Majors to 16 at Pebble Beach.

“Qualifying for the U.S. Open is very important for me considering that there are not many events left in the schedule. I have to make the best of all the opportunities I get, and it is also important that I go into a major championship feeling that I am playing well. I have played plenty of majors but not many where I felt I was playing close to my best golf. I really feel I do this time.”

A very interesting aspect of Lahiri’s qualifying story at Columbus was the fact that he played the two golf courses—Brookside and Scioto Country Club—virtually ‘blind’. He had no prior experience of the two layouts, but he also resisted from carrying the detailed yardage books, which have almost become a must-carry for every professional golfer these days.

In an exclusive interview to Sports Lounge, Lahiri said: “I wanted to spend less energy thinking and processing on the golf course, especially because I played them blind. I just looked into my caddy’s book whenever I needed to. I have made a number of errors from over-analysis on the course last two weeks at the Colonial and Muirfield, so that was an experiment in not allowing myself to do so.”

What Lahiri did not allude to, and something that he has spoken about at length in the past to this writer, is how he is trying to resurrect the ‘feel’ player he has always been. Obviously, there is no getting away with the yardage books in this day and age, but he wants to get back to trusting his eyes more and not getting too over reliant on supplied data.

Playing blind helped at the Sectional, and hopefully, it will also help at Pebble Beach.

Apart from scheduling issues—AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is a week before LA, which then leads to the Florida Swing, virtually home events for the West Palm Beach resident—Lahiri has avoided the journey down the 17-Mile Drive because he doesn’t like three-course tournaments and the fact that the weather at Pebble during that time of the year can be very cold and wet.

However, it could all turn out to Lahiri’s advantage.

“It is always good to have a prior knowledge of the golf course. However, the set-up of Pebble Beach during the AT&T Pro-Am, and the set-up during the US Open will be completely different. So, I think I will not reach the golf course with any preconceived notions, which can only be good,” he added.

“I am planning to reach there on Saturday, or Sunday morning, which will give me enough time to scope out the course.”

Lahiri has played in two U.S. Opens before this—in 2015 and 2016—and missed the cut in both. His last Major was the 2018 PGA Championship, where he missed the cut again.

The 2019 US Open starts Thursday, June 13.

Sports Lounge Exclusive

Invest in grooming coaches to develop Indian football: Man City star Paul Dickov

Sayan Mukherjee

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Paul Dickov says India are on the right track as a footballing nation.

New Delhi: India should invest in grooming coaches who would impart modern day knowledge to budding footballers during their nascent stage, former Manchester City forward Paul Dickov said.

India’s growth trajectory in football is slow and for swifter results the country should improve its infrastructure and focus on developing age-based groups.

“Coaching has got to be right from a very young age, getting the facilities right is also very important. India’s vast population and passion for football should also, hopefully, help the national team do well,” Paul told Sports Lounge in an exclusive chat during the announcement of Man City’s global multi-year partnership with premier smartphone brand TECNO mobile here.

“Children should get the chance to train under capable coaches. India also needs to concentrate on picking the right talent for their age-group categories,” he added.

The 46-year-old noted that with limited facilities India have shown potential to grow and rather than immediate results the country should be patient, setting realistic goals.

“India needs to be patient. They should be prepared to take one step forward and expect to take two steps back. Not just in India, but many Asian countries, when it comes to progress in football, expect to achieve everything now without necessarily putting in the hard work to get there first,” he opined.

Dickov has travelled to India several times in the last two years for Man City’s promotional activities and has noticed an improvement in fan engagement and general enthusiasm regarding the sport in the country. He kicked off a new health and fitness challenge named TECNO Race to Manchester City, which will see 40,000 Indian fans race around the world to Manchester.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger. Everytime I come here I see improvement. The national team is getting better. We have all seen that recently. But you can’t expect the national team to do well unless proper care is taken at the grassroots,” the Scot said.

Dickov had a distinguished career in the English Premier League from 1990 to 2011 for clubs like Arsenal, Man City, Leicester City, and Leeds United. He believes that the EPL champions Man City, under chief coach Pep Guardiola, are poised for an even bigger trophy haul after winning four trophies last season.

City won their second straight EPL title (their fourth in seven years), FA Cup title, EFL cup and FA Community Shield last season but crashed out in the Champions League quarterfinals.

“I think they are going to get better and better all the time. The average age of the squad is around 25 years. You look at Ederson, (Aymeric) Laporte, (John) Stones, (Benjamin) Mendy, Bernardo Silva, (Leroy) Sane, Raheem (Sterling), Gabriel Jesus—they are winning things and creating records at such a young age. They can only move forward during the next four, five, six years.

“I can see them going on and creating more records from here on. When you look at what they have won already at that young age and what they could go on to do, they are only going to get better. Champions League will be in their sights this year, I guess because they want to win everything,” the former Arsenal striker said.

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Golf Lounge

SPORTS LOUNGE IMPACT: IOA forms committee to run affairs of ‘unruly’ Indian Golf Union

Shaghil Bilali

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The de-recognition of the IGU will also affect the staging of the European Tour tri-sanctioned Hero Indian Open next year.

New Delhi: After Sports Longue highlighted the Indian Golf Union’s failure to implement the National Sports Development Code 2011 (NSDC) and put its house in order, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) swung into action as it disaffiliated the golf body and formed a five-member governance committee to run the sports and oversee ‘aspects regarding golfers’ participation in the Olympic qualifiers’.

If this was not enough, the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports (MYAS) led by Kiren Rijiju on Thursday also sent a letter to the IGU, informing that it no more enjoyed the government’s recognition.

IOA’s letter, a copy of which is in possession of Sports Lounge, of forming a governance committee came after almost two years it had sent a letter to the IGU about its non-compliance with Sports Code 2011. The IOA had intimated the golf body that it’s recognition was not guaranteed beyond February 2018. However, the IGU managed to evade sanctions through various means but it ultimately faced the wrath of IOA.

The IOA president Dr Narinder Dhruv Batra on Tuesday shot a letter to IGU acting president Lt. Gen. Devraj Anbu and honorary secretary Lt. Gen. A.K.S. Chandele, informing him that the IOA is taking the matter of governance of golf in its hands.
“Given the lapses in procedures and timelines, there is void in the leadership and management of golf in India. IGU has failed to resolve the impasse on reform in the last six months. Under the current circumstances, a resolution is not feasible without external supervision on reform of governance,” the letter read.

Batra wrote that after the IGU failed to hold AGM and conduct election, he and Rajiv Mehta, general secretary, IOA, met Antony Scanlon, Executive Director of International Golf Federation (IGF), in May in Australia, where the decision to form a governance committee was taken.

“Dr. Narinder Dhruv Batra, President and Mr. Rajeev Mehta, Secretary General of Indian Olympic Association met Mr. Antony Scanlon, Executive Director of International Golf Federation, on 6 May 2019, at GCCEC, Gold Coast, Australia, to discuss on working together to resolve the situation. It was then agreed that a Golf Governance Committee would be formed to reform governance, liaise with all stakeholders, ensure compliance of norms and helping IGU conduct election,” the letter said.

The IOA letter said the IGU held its last election on October 28, 2016. Term of whose top officials and the council members ended by the end of October 2018.

The letter also ensured that the Indian golfers’ preparations for the Olympics won’t be jeopardised.
“Considering the significance of participation in Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the Committee shall also oversee all aspects with regard to participation of athletes and officials in the Olympic Qualifier competitions/ events during the interim period.”

At present, professional golfers Gaganjeet Bhullar (Rank 48) and Shubhankar Sharma (49) are the highest-ranked Indians in the Olympic rankings, while on the women’s side it is the likes of Aditi Ashok (35) and Diksha Dagar (55). These four players would represent the country if they remain the highest-ranked golfers in the IGF standings before next year’s cut-off date for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The five-member governance committee has Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI) president Kavita Singh as chairperson, Mukesh

Kumar, Onkar Singh, Vir Srivastava and a nominee of IGF as its members.

The letter further said since the IGU’s AGM last year was challenged in the court and it failed to come up with a solution subsequently, the IOA lost hope on the golf body.

“The IGU had issued letter to conduct election on 15 December, 2018, which was legally challenged and the election was stayed by order of the Alipore District Court, dated 14 December, 2018, in case Misc-79/2018 (West Bengal Golf Society Vs The Indian Golf Union & Ors).

“Given the lapses in procedures and timelines, there is void in the leadership and management of golf in India. IGU has failed to resolve the impasse on reform in the last six months. Under the current circumstances, a resolution is not feasible without external supervision on reform of governance.”

Sports Longue in its reports had highlighted the IGU’s adamant behaviour towards its members and golf clubs, and failure to follow the Sports Code guidelines.
The federation got four unprecedented interim recognition extensions from Sports Ministry before it ultimately got de-recognised last month. Issues like pending court cases, army clubs having voting rights in the AGM and the active army personnel holding top posts in the state and the national federations went against the IGU. The current president of the IGU is also the Vice-Chief of Army staff.

Ministry too writes to IGU

The sports ministry’s derecognition of IGU came into effect from June 30, four days after the federation had requested it to continue recognition citing a Calcutta High Court observation. However, nowhere the Court had said that the ministry was bound by its decision, nor there was any instruction that the de-recognition must be annulled. But if IGU had any hope of a fifth extension, the ministry dashed it on Tuesday.

In his letter, A.K. Singh, under secretary in the Sports Ministry, wrote to IGU director general Maj. Gen. Bibhuti Bhushan (Retd.), “I am directed to refer to your letter dated 26.6.2019 requesting further extension of recognition to Indian Golf Union (IGU). In this regard, it may be recalled that IGU’s interim recognition was extended by the Ministry for the fourth time till 30.06.2019, subject to the conditions as detailed in letter dated 08.03.2019. IGU was also informed vide letter dated 27.06.2019 that the implementation of the court order dated 20th Feb 2019 is an internal matter of IGU and the Government does not interfere in such issues to maintain the autonomy of a National Sports Federation (NSF). It was also conveyed therein that there does not seem to be any hindrance in implementing the above mentioned court order.”

He further wrote, “It has, therefore, been decided that the request for extension of recognition of IGU can only be considered after it complies with the directions as laid down in this Ministry’s letter dated 08.03.2019.”

What golf fraternity can do now

The de-recognition by the ministry and disaffiliation by the IOA is a huge blow to the IGU, which for last two years failed to convince its members to come under the same page. Even though the IOA has formed a committee which will oversee the election process, it will be almost same members from the current IGU set-up, who are likely to be part of future federation. So, for now, the IGU officials should look back, acknowledge their faults, sort out pending court cases and resolve all the issues with its members. The flared egos in the federation have taken them to hit rock bottom. It’s time to keep the disagreements away, work for the unity and take golf to the grassroots.

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Golf Lounge

Gloomy future awaits Indian Golf Union after ‘derecognition’ and violation of Army guidelines

Shaghil Bilali

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Lt. Gen. Devraj Anbu, who is also the Vice-Chief of Army Staff since May 31, 2018, is under scrutiny for working as acting president of the Indian Golf Union.

New Delhi: The Indian Golf Union (IGU) stands derecognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports headed by Kiren Rijiju. But the bigger question is will the IGU overcome the National Sports Development Code (NSDC) 2011 diktat in the current scenario it is in despite getting “preferential” treatment at the hands of the government to put its house in order.

Four extensions of interim recognition and almost a two-year time after it was suspended in 2017, the IGU let the momentum slip from its hands it should have seized seriously. Now, all it is doing to present before the Sports Ministry is a Calcutta High Court observation which suggests the ‘appropriate authorities’ not to de-recognise the IGU till an appeal is disposed by the court.

Maj. Gen. Bibhuti Bhushan (Retd.), IGU director general, confirmed Sports Lounge that it has requested the ministry to recognise the IGU again on the basis of the court observation. In our last story we had talked about the IGU’s request for a fifth extension of interim recognition and the several legal cases they are facing.

“The Calcutta High Court in its decision last month said that the pendency of the matter before us may be cited before the appropriate authority not to de-recognise the IGU till the appeal is disposed off by us. The next hearing is on July 30,” Bhushan told the online sports portal.

The problem with IGU’s argument is the court has made an observation. Nowhere it has said the ministry is bound by its decision, nor there is any direct instruction that the derecognition must be annulled with immediate effect.

Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju (L) is determined to make all NSFs comply with the Sports Code 2011.

Rijiju, who took over from accomplished shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, as the Sports Minister recently made it clear in the Lok Sabha that all National Sports Federations (NSFs) need to comply with NSDC.

Responding to a question by Trinamool Congress MP Sunil Kumar Mondal, Rijiju said: “This ministry has notified the NSDC 2011 effective from 31/01/2011 to ensure transparency and accountability in the functioning of NSFs for the healthy development of sports. As per the NSDC, NSFs are required to follow democratic and healthy management practices which require them to ensure greater accountability and transparency at all levels; adopt impartial and transparent selection procedures; adhere to age and tenure restrictions of office bearers; adopt and follow the basic universal principles of good governance in sports; adopt proper accounting procedures at all levels and produce annual financial statements; prevent age fraud and sexual harassment of women; comply with the provisions of the Right to Information Act; and hold elections as per model election guidelines issued by the government.”

The matter is now in the hands of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) which may form an ad hoc committee with a ministry official as its member to run the sports in India.

However, the golf body needs to undertake a long winding route to sort out various issues it has only complicated over the years. The biggest point of contention has been the excessive intervention of the Armed Forces, especially the Indian Army, in the governance/administration of the national federation. The IGU’s previous governance structure had five zones—East, West, North, South and Army—with the presidential post presented annually on a rotational basis. This was questioned by the Sports Ministry, forcing them to draft a new governance code as per the NSDC.

The same was highlighted by the Justice Lodha Committee recommendations that all sports federations must be free from any ‘government interference’ also featured in the “Olympic Charter”, part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that gives recognition to various NSFs in India through the IOA.

The latest RTI reply, in possession of Sports Lounge, clearly mentions the conditions under which an army official can get involved in sports bodies or any institutions. Article 19/Chapter V of the Army Rules 1954 state that no officer/personnel can “assist or take any active part in, any society, institution or organisation, not recognised as part of the Armed Forces of the Union; unless it be of a recreational or religious nature in which case prior sanction of the superior officer shall be obtained”.

Please mark that the association must be of a “recreational” nature. Considering this, the appointment of Lt. Gen. Devraj Anbu, who is also the Vice-Chief of Army Staff,  as the acting president of IGU is in direct violation of the Indian Army guidelines.

It has also been alleged that the acting president used his influential position in the Army to persuade previous Sports Minister Rathore to extend the interim recognition to IGU thrice since his appointment last April. Rathore, being an ex-Armyman, had to pay heed to a senior defence officer, it’s further alleged.

To explain the Army guidelines, membership in a club (for playing golf and using club facilities) is certainly recreational but heading a NSF is certainly not recreational and goes against the spirit of NSDC, which is about bringing professionalism/accountability in sports.

As an acting president, Lt. Gen. Devraj Anbu not only convenes the Annual General Meeting (AGM), but he also approves the utilisation of Sports Ministry grants and various expenditures incurred by the IGU. He is also the final authority on the appointment of different IGU committees, selection of golfers for international competitions and appointment of team managers/coaches/training staff etc.

The defence forces are well-known for their discipline and understanding of rules. However, in this case someone enjoying the second most senior rank in the Indian Army chose to ignore its own rulebook.

Should army officers still be allowed to hold top positions is an issue the golf fraternity should seriously look into.

In another RTI reply, what has come to light is Army/defence state units or facilities thereof aren’t allowed to become members of any sports body without prior permission (or without a No Objection Certificate) of the Army Sports Control Board (ASCB) or the Services Sports Control Board (SSCB), the final authority affiliated to the IOA in this case.

In the same RTI, filed by Shyam Sunder, vice-president of the Ooty Gymkhana Club, army’s chief information officer, Rakesh Rawat, clarifies whether defence personnel can join sports federations and whether defence units are eligible to become part of sports bodies. In his reply dated June 26, Rawat said, “After obtaining NOC from SSCB.”

“The RTI is making the NOC condition a must, but none of the army units, associated with state golf associations, has taken a NOC from the SSCB. Now, how can they become part of sports bodies when they violating an important defence rule?,” Sunder asked.

In most Olympic sports, like boxing and athletics, defence teams participate under the banner of SSCB, but golf and equestrian are exceptions where SSCB is nowhere in picture. The issue of army officers’ interference doesn’t end here. The training areas where golf is played as a recreational activity are affiliated as clubs under by the IGU. They can attend the AGM and have the voting rights.

In a RTI reply on March 27, Amit Sharma, information officer of the Indian Army, categorically said army clubs are ‘common training areas used for weapon training and obstacle training’. An ex-IGU official said the presence of army personnel has long been an objectionable issue and it can be contested in a court.

“The IGU has to resolve the issue of army clubs if it wants to put its house in order. The army clubs are not for common use. They are for army officers where they also allow some junior officers to play. While the Sports Code 2011 says that the voting rights should be given to the bodies working at grassroot level,” an ex-IGU official said on the condition of anonymity.

He added, “Tomorrow, if someone goes in the court against the presence of army officers in associations or status of army training areas as clubs, IGU will again be caught on the wrong foot.”

Where does the IGU stand after derecognition?

As reported by Sports Longue last month, the ministry in its letter dated March 8 had extended the IGU’s interim recognition to June 30. The IGU failed to conduct elections and put the house in order within the deadline. The derecognition came into effect from July 1. The ministry and the IOA has removed the IGU’s name from its list of recognised sports federations. In Parliament last Thursday, Sports Ministry informed the lower house that a total 56 recognised NSFs are affiliated to it and IGU’s name was not mentioned in the list.

A Sports Ministry source said, “Since we had already informed them about derecognition in our March letter, we needed not to issue a fresh directive. They had been given enough time to hold the elections and implement the sports code. They failed to come up with a solution.”

The IOA may now form an ad hoc committee as it did when the boxing federation was derecognised by Sports Ministry. The ministry may also appoint a government observer to oversee the election process.

However, the silver lining among the dark clouds hovering over IGU is that the golfers won’t get affected by derecognition. Their training and participation in domestic and international tournaments including the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will continue. The ministry has already passed the IGU’s annual calendar, so there will be no stoppage of golf activities.

In order to form an ad hoc committee or conduct elections, the ministry or the IOA has to move to the golf fraternity, but if it is indulging in infighting, issues getting resolved is highly unlikely.

Bhushan told Sports Longue, “We are serious about enforcing the Sports Code and holding elections, but parties with vested interest don’t want us to do it. They have filed court cases and don’t seem interested to get them resolved. There is also a talk of settlement out of court, but nothing has materialised yet.”

Hearings of as many as five cases against the IGU is pending in July. The IGU has spent hefty amount on fees of lawyers. The IGU has hired three law firms to fight their cases, and spent Rs. 77.21 lakh in legal fees till May 2019.

Legal battles, in practicality, aren’t going to help golf fraternity in the long run. If they keep fighting legal battles, the ad hoc committee will also find it difficult to hold fresh elections. The fraternity has to get issues resolved and come under the same page.

Golfers may not get affected by political wrangling, but the image of the sport will be tarnished, meaning the success stories of golfers from marginalised classes would fail to untie the ‘elite’ noose haunting the sport since the British Raj.

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