It was supposed to be the validation of Shubhankar Sharma as the pre-eminent current Indian golfer. Victory in the country’s premier event, on a tough course, would have added to the lustre he has acquired by clinching two European Tour titles and finishing in the top-10 at a WGC tournament.
As it turned out, it was last week once again for Sharma. The 21-year-old, who led the Mexico Championship after 36 and 54 holes only to falter on the final day, did so again to finish tied seventh at the Hero Indian Open.
For a while, it looked that Sharma and overnight co-leader Matt Wallace would go toe-to-toe in the final round. But once the Indian found the water with his tee shot on the par-3 5th hole, it was all downhill for him as he carded a 3-over 75. Wallace, meanwhile, played a sterling round of 4-under 68 and beat fellow Englishman Andrew Johnston on the first playoff hole for the title on the “hardest golf course I have played in my career”.
It was the first time the Indian Open was won by a foreign player since it has been part of the European Tour since 2015. In the process, Wallace became the first Englishman to win the title, whose history dates back to 1964. His chipping and putting was impeccable on the final day, often finding the hole from considerable distances. During the playoff on the par-5 18th hole, He found the green in two shots after a monster drive, while Johnston laid up. When the latter missed his birdie putt, Wallace had two putts for the title.
For Sharma though, the exertions of the last week and a half may have been too much to cope with in the end, but it was to his credit that he remained in contention as long as he did. “Even though I started well, I made a few bad swings and the double bogey on the 5th put me off my game,” Sharma said. It was the first of three double bogeys for the Chandigarh golfer, who also had three other dropped shots. “Thereafter, whenever I made a birdie, it was followed by a bogey or double bogey which dented my chances further.”
Wallace held the lead throughout the final round, and though different players tried to make a charge at various points, it was Johnston who sustained the challenge throughout the day. His was the best round of the day as he carded a flawless 6-under 66 and kept eating into Wallace’s lead, which stood at three shots at one stage. The two came level when Johnston made a birdie at the par-4 17th and Wallace, playing behind him, bogeyed the 16th hole after a wayward drive.
Both players were looking for their second European Tour title, but it was Wallace who prevailed after making two pars to finish 72 holes and then coming up trumps in the playoff. “It is very satisfying to win on such a tough course. It won’t be an exaggeration to say it is the hardest I have played. It demands you to be constantly on your game. It is so tight that you can’t be off-line at all. The set-up was almost a US Open style with sloping fairways and fast greens. It gives me massive confidence going forward in my career,” the 27-year-old said.
For Sharma, it may have been a missed opportunity. But the youngest player in the top 100 of the Official World Golf Rankings, who has already got an invite to the Masters, is looking forward to his next big challenge. He is likely to make the cut for the WGC-Match Play starting in Austin, Texas, from March 21. He will have a chance to add a few more big scalps to his name.
“I’m happy about the way I’ve been playing and that I’m able to get myself into contention every week. I’m looking forward to playing the Match Play tournament. It’ll be a good break from strokeplay. The last time I won a matchplay event was the All-India Amateur, which was six years ago,” the Chandigarh pro said.
“I put in a lot of hard work, and I’m happy with the way things have been. Disappointments are part of the game. It’ll just make me stronger. The next time I’m in this situation, I’ll do better.”
Even though he had a tough day, Sharma managed to impress the eventual champion. “When Shubhankar got into the final group, I told my caddie that we won’t be the favourites in the final round. He didn’t play as well as he would’ve liked today, but he has got so much talent. He has got such a good game and a good head that he will go a long way in golf,” Wallace said.
Final scores (top finishers): -11: Matt Wallace (ENG) 68, Andrew Johnston (ENG) 66; -8: Sihwan Kim (USA) 68; -7: Pablo Larrzabal (ESP) 69, Matthias Schwab (AUT) 70; -5: Emiliano Grillo (ARG) 72; -4: Shubhankar Sharma (IND) 75, Stephen Gallacher (SCO) 74