Coming into the final round with a one-shot lead, Indian golfer Anirban Lahiri fell short by a stroke to finish second at The Players Championship at Ponte Vedra Beach.
Lahiri (69) needed a birdie on the 18th hole, the 72nd of the tournament, to force a play-off with Cameron Smith of Australia, who began the final round with four birdies in a row. Smith carded 66 and totalled 13-under, despite a nervous bogey on the 18th, while Lahiri ended at 12-under after a superb birdie on the iconic Island Green on 17th and a par on the 18th.
Nonetheless, this was an impressive return to form for the seasoned pro as he walked away with a career-best $2.18 million in earnings.
"I want to win. I've been here seven years; haven't gotten over the line yet. That's definitely a monkey I want to get off my back. Today was as good an opportunity as any," said a disappointed Lahiri, who was bidding to become the second Indian after Arjun Atwal to win on the PGA TOUR.
But the performance overall was a major boost to his confidence. "I'm just relieved. I've gone through two years of playing horrible. The last time I contended in a field this good was at Memorial maybe, five years ago, or even that was a back-door second. I shot 7-under on Sunday. It's been a long time since I've been in this position in a quality field like this," he said.
It was the 34-year-old's second career runner-up finish following the 2017 Memorial Tournament and pushed him up to 45th position on the FedExCup with 330 points.
After finishing the last seven holes of the third round with one more birdie and one more bogey, Lahiri ended the 54 holes of the weather-disrupted flagship event with a one-shot lead over the field. Smith, who started the final round at seven-under to Lahiri's 11-under, was on fire though the Indian kept himself in the frame for most of the time. When he did seem to fall off, as it looked after the double bogey on eighth, he pulled himself back with a stunning eagle, his third of the week. And then again when Smith seemed to be running away and the holes were running out, Lahiri reeled in a brilliant birdie on the challenging par-three 17th.
The door opened just a bit more when Smith, playing ahead of Lahiri, bogeyed the 18th and the gap was down to one. Lahiri needed to birdie the 18th to force a play-off, but his approach fell short of the green and he managed only a par to end a dramatic final day.
Despite the heartbreak of missing the title, Lahiri's earnings were probably the biggest ever for an Indian sportsperson from a single one-week long event. It also took Lahiri into the Top-100 after a long time, but the winning and FedEx Cup points will ensure more, including a card for 2023.
"I guess at one point on the 16th, I thought it was kind of out of reach, but then again, birdie on 17 kind of opened the door. I gave it a good go. Made some mistakes that I could have avoided, but that's golf. This is a really positive week for me going forward," said Lahiri.
Although his final approach shot failed to find the green, one area of improvement which Lahiri was extremely pleased about was his iron play, which saw him ranked 13th in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green at The Players.
"It's huge, because when you go through such a lean period for such a long time, you start asking yourself, man, was that a flash in the pan? What are you doing? You haven't played good in so long. Your belief takes a hit, so this for me is -- I'm going to re-cement the foundation and work upwards from here," said the Indian, who added 3.5 grams to his irons at the start of the week.
Smith was superb all day with 10 birdies against three bogeys through 17 holes but opened the door with what turned out to be a winning bogey after finding water on the 18th hole with his second shot.