Life has changed dramatically for Shubhankar Sharma over the last few months. From being just another Indian golfer on the professional circuit, he is now the latest torchbearer of the contingent.
After winning twice on the European Tour in as many months, and leading a World Golf Championship after 36 and 54 holes – eventually finishing tied ninth – the 21-year-old has come to a simple conclusion which has prompted him to recalibrate his goals in the sport. “Anything is possible in golf if you have four good days. I see myself competing for Major titles. No one knows what you can achieve in this game,” he elaborates about his medium-term goals.
As for now, the soft-spoken youngster from Chandigarh, who leads the standings on both the European and Asian Tours, hopes he will have “four good days” at the Hero Indian Open at the DLF Golf & Country Club starting on Thursday and next month, at the Augusta Masters. Amazingly, Sharma and his caddie Gurbaaz Mann stayed awake at night not too long ago watching official Masters films, and from April 5-8, he will get a chance to star in the next one. “I always wanted to make it to the Masters this year. When I missed successive cuts in Qatar and Oman a few weeks ago, I told Gurbaaz that we cannot afford any more mistakes,” Sharma said. “We used to watch a Masters film every night. We watched the 1986 one (when Jack Nicklaus won at the age of 46) and the Tiger Woods triumphs.”
Sharma’s exploits at the WGC-Mexico Championship last week not only prompted the wider world, and the Augusta National Golf Club, to take notice, it also instilled belief in him that his best is good enough at the top level. “I was very tough on myself on my return from Mexico as I didn’t finish the tournament as well as I had hoped (he carded a final round 74). But all the pain got washed away when I received the call from Augusta National with the invite.”
Sharma had already qualified for the Open Championship by winning the Joburg Open in December. Though he admits the oldest Major of them all is his favourite, he is looking forward to the trip down Magnolia Lane in April.
“For me, Masters is a special tournament, comparable to Wimbledon in tennis,” he says. And he has watched so many editions of the Masters on television that he claims to know all the holes at Augusta National by heart, and how to go about tackling them.
“The Masters is just like a WGC event in terms of the depth of the field. There are holes you can attack and others where you have to be cautious. Of course, Amen corner (spanning the 11th to 13th holes) is a special challenge. We all saw how Jordan’s Spieth’s title defence evaporated there in 2016,” Sharma pointed out, displaying he has an eagle eye and sharp memory when it comes to golfing developments.
Anirban Lahiri, who was the pre-eminent Indian golfer competing on the PGA Tour before Sharma’s meteoric rise, is happy to slip in the younger man’s slipstream.
“It’s amazing to see what he is doing. He is 21 and playing the Masters, which is good for us as a country. To see someone break through and just run away with his confidence and his game, it’s a great thing for Indian golf,” Lahiri said. “The younger players will feel, ‘if he can do it we can do it, we used to play side by side’. And I hope we get to play together on the PGA Tour.”
Lahiri has had a few top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour and been part of two Presidents Cup squads, but a title has eluded him so far. The 80th-ranked player in the world feels it’s only fair that Sharma gets the major share of the spotlight now.
“What have I done in the last two years? Nothing that I would write home about. I may have had a few good finishes and a good Presidents Cup, but I personally haven’t won, I haven’t lived up to the kind of golf that I should be playing. So, to see someone who has earned his stripes and has won not once but twice, and with his performance last week, by all means he deserves all the attention he is getting. It’s not like he has won a lottery ticket, he has worked his way there. If anything it inspires me.”
Playing at Augusta is likely to put Sharma firmly in the spotlight with the crowds expected to be bigger than anything he has experienced before. But being paired in the final round in Mexico with a crowd favourite like Phil Mickelson has prepared him for the experience.
“It was the biggest crowd I had ever played in front of. A lot of them were supporting Phil but I got equal, if not more, support. Playing with him did not overawe or faze me. Obviously, he hit some great shots and made birdies, but I was more immersed in my game than looking at what he was doing.”
Sharma is now confident enough to wish for the ultimate challenge in terms of pairing at Augusta. “I played against most of the other top players at the WGC. It would be great if I am paired with Tiger (Woods).”
Since becoming part of the European Tour in 2015, the Indian Open has always been won by Indians.
SSP Chawrasia will aim for a hat-trick of titles this weekend. PGA Tour professional Anirban Lahiri would like to add to the title he won in 2015.
Shiv Kapur will look to do the Indian double after clinching the Panasonic Open last November.
Also watch out for: Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, ranked 76th in the world, current European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn of Denmark and former Open champion Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland.