“In our case, ignorance was bliss,” says Col Mohan Sharma (retd) when asked how his son Shubhankar Sharma, Indian golf’s fast-rising star, took the inspired decision of turning pro at 16 in 2013.
In Indian golf, the convention among informed parents is to allow their kids to ease into the world of professional sport by first spending three to four years as amateurs after graduating from the junior level. But Sharma wasn’t your average golf dad. It wasn’t his sport of choice— his primary interest in golf lay in the fact his son was interested in it. Unencumbered from the game’s customs and conventions, then, he threw his teenage son in at the deep end.
“In 2013, Shubhankar had won the Indian amateur championship when he was barely 16, right after his junior years,” says Sharma Sr on the sidelines of a function to felicitate his son at DLF Golf Academy in Gurgaon. “And I thought, what now? In India, people think you need to play two-three years on the amateur tour before turning pro. But I thought there was no point in wasting time.
“I relied on instincts. I knew he was mature beyond his years. It was just a case of mental transition. For the parents of kids who are raised in a golfing environment, there could be a personal limitation of thought. It wasn’t my case. I thought, yaar ho sakta hai. Fauji thinking thi: everything is possible. After all, Sachin Tendulkar became a Test player at 16,” he adds.
Note that Sharma didn’t cite Rory McIlroy (who turned pro at 18) or Matteo Manassero (pro at 17) as cases in point. Even his inspiration came from outside golf.
Last month, four years after turning pro, Shubhankar justified his father’s faith in him with a commanding victory in the co-sanctioned Joburg Open, a result that made him the youngest Indian winner on the prestigious European Tour and the second youngest on the Asian Tour (after Gaganjeet Bhullar).
The 21-year-old’s triumph in South Africa surprised many, given that all his previous five wins had come on the significantly less competitive domestic tour. For Shubhankar himself, however, it wasn’t unexpected.
“To win as soon as possible was always the plan,” says the youngster. “I turned pro very early. I knew if I can play well, I can beat anyone at any stage of the game. It was a great victory, but it didn’t come to me as a surprise.”
Backing him to the hilt
Yet, it very nearly didn’t happen. With a hectic end-of-the-year schedule staring at him, he was contemplating taking a break that week. “My whole family was with me in Mauritius at that time. So we were just planning, a week prior to the event, to go or not to go, and I was pretty convinced that I should go back to India and take a week off,” he recollects.
It was then that his father intervened, subtly.Says Sharma: “He came to me and said, ‘Papa, I will take a break’. I said fine, take a break. I don’t say no to whatever he says. He needs to have the upper hand as a player. He should decide for himself. Somewhere, he was also convinced that he should play, and I sensed it and nudged him over two days as to why he should go. On the third day he said, ‘OK, Papa, I think it’s a good idea to play. I said, wonderful!”
The rest was history scripted by Shubhankar. He blew the competition out of the water in the second round, practically ensuring his win with a score of ten-under 61 — the lowest number he has shot as a pro. With two more steady rounds, he clinched the trophy and with it a paycheque of nearly $200,000.
“That was probably the first time I never got ahead of myself,” the golfer says. “Golf is a sport where, between holes you have too much time, so sometimes the mind can get clogged up with too many things, negative thoughts, even stuff such as if I win what am I gonna say in my speech. If you think about these things, you may slip, make a bad shot, it can turn the round on its head. But that whole week, especially when I was playing, I never got ahead of myself. I was just in the present.”
In doing so, Shubhankar has secured his near future. The victory has given him a two-year exemption on the European Tour and — the cherry on top — an invitation to the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland, in July. It’s one Major he favours above all others.
“I always had a fascination for The Open. Always believed it’s the toughest Major. Links courses are not easy. Next to the ocean, very tough and very windy. The bunkers are deep, the fairways very hard. In normal conditions, golf is easy, but playing in windy conditions, wearing three layers, and often in rain, is a challenge.
“That said, it’s my first Major. I will just go out there and have fun.”