- Anirban Lahiri is India's No. 1 golfer
- One of the few Indians to play on PGA Tour
- Was fifth in 2015 U.S. PGA Championship
- India has only two public golf courses
(CNN)India is known for many things, but golf is not one of them.
That could all change soon, however, given the emergence of Anirban Lahiri.
The 28-year-old is blazing a trail out of one of the least likely places on earth: a country of over 1.25 billion that fields only two public golf courses.
Born in the Indian city of Pune, the young Lahiri shadowed his father, an Army doctor who played on private military courses. In the intervening two decades, he's rarely put down his clubs.
Lahiri's 2015 was impressive by nearly any golfer's standards: finishing No. 1 on the Asian Tour, 20th on the European Tour, and gaining entry to the prestigious U.S. PGA Tour. To top it off, he tied for fifth in the U.S. PGA Championship -- the best performance by an Indian golfer at any of the four majors.
Suffice to say, Lahiri's stock is on the rise.
Despite a hectic playing schedule, he found time to open up to CNN on everything from meeting Tiger Woods for the first time, to meditation, to India's emergence as a sporting nation.
Was your father surprised when you wanted to take up golf professionally rather than follow in his footsteps as a doctor?
He was very encouraging right from the start. He introduced me to the game, and as I got older through my teens and I started getting better, I had to make a few decisions.
I had to make a decision while I was in high school to go with medicine or business -- you had to pick a stream. But I decided that if I want to play golf, then I couldn't possibly take the medical stream because I wouldn't be able to travel to my events, and I wouldn't have much time away from my books.
It wasn't something that happened overnight, but at the same time it wasn't something they were averse to. They were very encouraging.
You practice Vipassana meditation. How were you introduced to that?
About 11 years ago my mother found out about it, and she did a course to learn Vipassana and it really helped her lead a better life. Then my dad was equally taken by the technique, so it was only natural for me to find out what it was all about.
It's a form of meditation which is very introspective. It's not like you chant a mantra, it's not like you visualize an object or an image or anything else.
Does it help slow down your heart rate in big moments?
Yes, it helps your ability to stay in the present and not get ahead of yourself. It's obvious that when you are playing in a tournament situation that the adrenaline is going to kick in and your heart rate is going to go up.
But at the same time, it's also difficult to keep your awareness levels up, and that's how Vipassana helps me, because it allows me to stay aware of everything that's going on. And by awareness, I don't just mean what's going on around me, but what I'm feeling at that point in time inside of me.
And whenever you can be in touch with that part of yourself, it's going to help you center yourself. It's going to help you to calm yourself and just be in the present -- and that itself is a major tool.
So it's more of an ongoing practice for all 18 holes?
Yes... (but) it's not like yoga, or something where I get into a pose or a posture and that's that, no.
Do you practice yoga too?
Yes a little bit, not too much.
I follow B.K.S Iyengar (founder of Iyengar yoga). By follow, I mean I follow his school of thought or form of yoga. But I have so much going on that if I can do three or four sessions a week for a half an hour or so, that's good.
Vipassana's roots are in Buddhism. Did you grow up in any particular faith?
I grew up Hindu, I am a still a Hindu. You're right, it does have its roots in Buddhism, because it was rediscovered by Buddha, and that's the technique he used to liberate himself.
But Vipassana as a technique is not religious, it's just a technique by itself.
What was it like meeting Tiger Woods for the first time?
It was surreal the first time, absolutely. I think it was in 2014, he came to India for a day. I played some golf with him, and spent some time with him off the golf course as well.
That was very exciting, and a lot of fun for me. Just like the millions of other kids that he's inspired, I am also a big fan and looked up to him and everything that he's done, not just as (an individual), but for the sport in general.
And it was great just to be around him and to see what he's all about -- it was fantastic.
Did he give you any tips?
No, not really. I think it's almost professional etiquette that you don't bother or pester or bombard someone with questions. Out of respect you can't do that. It's like a code. So I let it be, and just (tried to) absorb and understand and just take in what (he had) to say.
Have you been recognized by any famous players -- like Rory Mcllroy or Phil Mickelson -- without expecting to be?
Now it's commonplace because a lot of these guys are my friends. I think that was a phase that I was going through maybe two years ago. But I think with everything that has happened in the last 18 months or so, a lot of the guys that you mentioned they recognize me and they know me as a peer.
I might go to the golf club in the morning and sit at the same table as Phil and have breakfast with him and have a chat before he goes out for his round and I go out for my round.
The dynamics of it are very different because we are all here, we are all trying to do the same thing, and we all have a lot of respect for each other.
Was there a moment when you realized you had really made it as a golfer?
I can't say I've arrived yet because I'm nowhere near where I want to be, but there have been good indicators that I'm on the right track.
Whether it was getting on the Presidents Cup team, or finishing fifth in the U.S. PGA Championship, these are all signs that make you believe stronger and more about what you want to achieve and do with your life.
I don't think this is evidence that I've arrived. I think it would be foolish for me to think that way
You have said before, "In India, if you're not a cricketer, you're nobody." But surely you must have enjoyed some praise in your home country.
It's funny because that statement I made gets brought up quite often and it always brings a smile to my face. People sometimes misunderstand what I'm trying to say. I'm not trying to go on the offensive and say nobody recognizes what I'm trying to do.
So you have been recognized?
In 2014, I was given an Arjuna Award, which is the second highest recognition for a sportsperson in India. So I was at the president's house in New Delhi, along with 10 or 12 athletes from various disciplines, which was a fantastic honor for me.
But the statement of what I said still holds true, because India as a nation is not a sporting nation. We don't have a big sporting culture. We have a very big education culture.
The culture that we do have is a cricketing culture, because it is the most well marketed and sold sport in our country.
I'm in America, which is without a doubt the most well-developed sporting culture in the world. Followed closely, I would say, by Australia.
Unfortunately, the only sport that actually sells or catches the common man (in India) -- or even the people from the higher echelons' attention -- is cricket.
It's beginning to happen now with (badminton champion) Saina Nehwal and (tennis doubles champion) Sania Mirza, but it only comes from extraordinary performances, it's not a culture that drives it. It's not something that's going to change overnight.
Have some of the Indian golfers who preceded you given helpful advice?
I've been privileged enough to become friends with the Indian legends of golf who I've looked up to all my life -- and even now I admire and respect them a lot. Whether it's Jeev Milkha Singh (20 pro wins, first Indian to enter the Masters) or Arjun Atwal (12 pro wins, first Indian to win a PGA event), they are very good friends and I've had the luxury of having them advise me.
Arjun, for instance, was instrumental in reaching out to me and telling me that I have to seriously prepare myself to get to the PGA Tour. He just got me mentally ready for that.
Is there anything you're doing differently now that you've made it on the PGA Tour?
No, I wouldn't do anything (physically) differently on the PGA Tour. We are professional golfers so we are very disciplined athletes in our own right. So even if I'm playing a club tournament, you'd still find me in bed at 9:30 p.m. and up three hours before my event, and doing my routines or whatever I do to warm up.
I have been doing this professionally for eight years, but I've been playing competitively for 17 years. So those things are constant, you're not going to suddenly wake up and brush your teeth differently because you're brushing (them) on the PGA Tour.
You can't suddenly say, "Oh, I'm going to win Wimbledon, so starting today I'm going to suddenly change my life." It doesn't happen that way. You have to work at it right from the start and take baby steps.
You still call Bangalore home, but given that you play on three different tours, how often are you actually there?
Maybe 15 weeks a year. This year it's going to be fewer than 10, I think.
So you're on the road 80% of the year, but you're also one half of a young married couple (he wed longtime partner Ipsa Jamwal in 2014). How does that dynamic work?
She travels with me at least 60% of the time. This year might be a little bit more. Yes, it's tough, she's known me six years now, one-and-a-half of which we've been married, so she pretty much knew what life was going to be like.
It's not easy. It's hard being an athlete, but it's even harder being the wife or husband of an athlete. A lot goes into what we do and a lot of that comes from what they do first.
Does she help coordinate travel?
You have the U.S. Masters coming up in April -- the first major of the season. Are you excited?
Oh yes, I'm excited to be going back. Last year was my first time, and ever since that Sunday I've been waiting to go back. I enjoyed my time there last year, and I feel really positive around that golf course.
Augusta National is famous for some tricky holes. How much do you remember of them?
I remember all the holes, and that's why experience is so important. It's great to be young and dynamic and all that, but experience counts -- especially when you play tracks like Augusta.
The first time is always a big learning curve; hopefully I'll put that into use when I go back.
Would you do anything different this year?
Not really, I planned my season pretty well last year going into Augusta, and a lot of it comes down to scheduling, and making sure I'll be fresh and peaking when I need to.
Anirban, thanks for your time, and best of luck for the season.
Thank you very much.