For a while in the early afternoon, concern was palpable on the course. A cursory look at the leaderboard would make the reason amply clear. Halfway through Round 2 of the Hero Indian Open, hardly any Indian featured among the top 20 players. For a tournament known to be dominated by local players for several years, the absence of any home interest in terms of the title race going into the weekend was bad news. That was before the latest toast of Indian golf, Shubhankar Sharma, caught fire on the back nine to break the course record with an 8-under 64 to be second on his own and only four shots from the lead.
As many as 39 Indian players had started in a field of 144 golfers, but as things stand after a suspended second round, not more than 10 will see weekend action. Those falling by the wayside include two-time defending champion SSP Chawrasia, who followed his 2-over 74 with a 5-over 77. And with Argentine Emiliano Grillo being the runaway leader after following his course record-equalling 7-under 65 with a 4-under 68, there was much to be worried about at the DLF Golf & Country Club. Sharma claimed to have not seen the leaderboard as he started his round, but regardless, went about restoring some home pride.
The exertions of last week, when he led the WGC-Mexico Championship after 54 holes, had resulted in a start which could charitably be called ‘slow’. Five-over after his first nine holes on Thursday, Sharma salvaged his first round to end at 1-over. However, it ensured that when he started on Friday, the 21-year-old had some modest goals.”First of all, I wanted to make the cut. I got off to a good start even though I was just 2-under for the front nine. I knew I had momentum on my side and was playing well,” Sharma said. The first nine featured three birdies and a bogey, and gave no inkling of the birdie barrage coming in. “The second shot to the 10th was crucial to my round. I had about 168 yards to the hole and it landed like a feather just about a foot from the pin.”
That clicked something inside Sharma and he proceeded to take the rest of the Gary Player-designed layout apart for a back nine of 6-under par 30. He sank a 30-footer on the par-3 12th and hit his second shot to eight feet on the next hole for back-to-back birdies to get to 4-under par for the tournament. The spectators sensed something special was in the offing and they were right.
Three birdies in the final four holes, including on the 17th and 18th, put the exclamation point on a spectacular day on Sharma’s home course.”I was hitting my approach shots close to the hole on almost every hole, and giving myself good birdie opportunities.”
Two titles on the European Tour and his exploits in Mexico had filled him with so much confidence that Sharma decided to go for the 18th green with his second shot. “I knew I needed a birdie to break the course record and wanted it badly,” he said after putting his autograph on a cap for a young fan. And he is not fretting about being in the final group of the third round in his national Open, which he considers the fifth Major for Indian golfers, despite the fact that a victory can take him inside the top-50 in world rankings.
“I have been in this situation quite a few times now and have local knowledge of the course – which pins to attack and which to respect,” Sharma said as he acknowledged the congratulations of fellow Indian pro Khalin Joshi, who had got into the top-10 with a round of 4-under 68. On any other day, a round of 6-under 66 – which takes a player inside the top-3 of the leaderboard – would have been the main talking point of the day. But Englishman Andrew Johnston had to cede the spotlight to Sharma. “I played lovely all day but it looked pretty average compared to my playing partner,” he said.
Grillo in command
But any player fancying a tilt at the Indian Open title will have to contend with 25-year-old Grillo, who sits atop the leaderboard at 11-under despite a closing bogey on the 9th hole. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it. When I practised on Tuesday and played the pro-am on Wednesday, I was telling myself that I’ll be in a good position if I can just shoot under par every day. Hopefully, I can keep my form going. I’ve done well over the past two days and I can’t ask for more,” the Argentine said. Grillo has a victory on the PGA Tour and Sharma is the current leader on the European Tour Order of Merit. It could turn out to be a battle royale between the two at the weekend.
Top scores: Emiliano Grillo (ARG) – 11 (-4); Shubhankar Sharma (IND) -7 (-8); Pablo Larrazabal (ESP) -6 (-1), Andrew Johnston (ENG) -6 (-6).
Notable Indians: Khalin Joshi -4 (-4), Ajeetesh Sandhu Par (+4), Jyoti Randhawa Par (Par).