Shubhankar Sharma’s father still has a picture of the then-19-year-old golfer wearing a woollen cap and sweater and posing at the leader-board of the US Open Sectional qualifier at the Walton Heath Golf Club, United Kingdom in June 2016.
It was Sharma’s first attempt to qualify for one of the four Majors and even though the youngster missed the cut, Sharma returned home dreaming about featuring in the second Major of the year, which was first played in a 36-hole format in a single day in 1895.
On Tuesday morning, the 21-year-old became the fifth Indian golfer — and the youngest from the country — to qualify for the US Open after he finished tied-fifth in the 36-hole sectional qualifier held at Brookside Golf Club and Lakes Golf Club in Ohio. In a field of 120 golfers, which featured 25 non-US golfers, Sharma carded a score of seven-under-137 to claim one of the 14 spots on offer to play at the Shinnecock Golf Course next week. “US Open was the first of the Majors for which I thought about qualifying and playing. When I played the sectional qualifiers in UK in 2016, the conditions were windy and rainy and I remember I had to buy a woolen cap and sweater from the pro shop. I still have the cap and sweater at my home,” Sharma says.
“Playing 36 holes in day is always tough and with windy conditions in Ohio, it was important to not lose my balance in the swing. The field here was as good as a PGA Tour event with players like Adam Scott and Vijay Singh aiming to qualify. The grass here is very thick and I spent a lot of time on shipping drills. I have not seen Shinnecock Golf Course but I know the roughs will be up and you have to hit the fairways accurately.”
While Sharma, who is currently ranked 77th in the world rankings, had booked his berth in The Open by winning the JoBurg Open last year, the Panchkula golfer was given a special invite for the Masters in April this year. A total of 860 golfers were attempting to claim the 74 spots on offer in the 12 sectional qualifiers with 10 qualifiers happening simultaneously in USA and one in the UK. Only 75 non-American golfers figured in these qualifiers.
Monday’s sectional qualifier at Ohio saw this year’s Texas Open winner Andrew Landry, two-time PGA tour winner this year Patton Kizerre, world former No.1 amateur golfer Joaquinn Niemann apart from 11-time PGA Tour winner and former world number one Adam Scott, fighting for the 14 spots.
“Shubhankar was playing in the qualifiers after playing in the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield. He missed the cut at Muirfield and it meant that he had a extra day for practice at Brookside and Lakes golf courses. During my career, I spent four years in this area and we discussed how to play on the Kentucky Blue Grass in the rough areas. So far, whatever opportunities, Shubhankar has got on the PGA tour, the focus has been on adjusting to the conditions and his hand eye coordination and the endurance level at these fast courses have helped him,” said former Indian golfer Gurbaaz Mann, who is in USA with Sharma as a mentor and will be caddying for him in US Open.
This year, Sharma has played in four PGA Tour events and finished a career-best tied ninth at the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, apart from playing in his first Majors in the form of The Masters in April.
“I guess Shubhankar is perhaps one of the few golfers, who will be playing on all the three tours — PGA Tour, European Tour and Asian Tour this year. In Asia, the first bounce of the ball on the ground is hard. In US, the first bounce is soft and the release of the ball is quicker and spin dictates the play more. In Asia, the greens show a reading close to 10.5 on the Stimpmeter (A device used to measure the speed of the greens) and here in USA, most of the readings range from 11-13. So judgement plays a big role. And Shubhankar has been very keen to spend time on these golf courses,” said Mann.
Next week’s 118th US Open will be played at the historic Shinnecock Golf Course, one of the five founding members clubs of USGA. The 7,445 yards long golf course will be playing host to the US Open for the fifth time and the first time since 2004. With no fairways running parallel, driving accuracy will be key for Sharma.
“Playing in the Masters helped Shubhankar understand the pressure of a Major. He has already qualified for The Open and it happened eight months before the championships. The key will be to visualise the game in different spots. And normally in US Open, the fairways are narrow and the rough is very thick. The landing areas are very tight. Shubhankar has showed good understanding of the greens and the only thing which was troubling him initially was the thick grass around the greens,” Shubhankar’s coach Jesse Grewal said.