The most unforgettable story from an unreal weekend at the World Golf Championships in Mexico for Shubhankar Sharma came before the start of Round 3 on Saturday. In his debut PGA Tour and WGC event, the 21-year-old had a fanboy moment when he spotted Phil Mickelson on the practice green. Having watched him only on the telly, Sharma went up to greet the left-hander.
The American legend had heard of Sharma, a two-time winner on the European Tour and the Race to Dubai leader, but hadn’t seen him yet. So when the young Indian approached him, Mickelson shooed him away, thinking he was a media-man hunting for a byte.
“Then he just realised (and said) ‘So sorry, I thought you were media’. He said ‘hi’. I said ‘hi’. And then he made a few putts and then he came back to me and said, ‘Have a good day.’ It was nice,” Sharma recalls the first meeting with one of his idols.
It’s tough to say if the greenhorn felt overwhelmed playing in the company of a crowd-puller that 47-year-old Mickelson is on a Sunday – it was the tournament’s youngest and oldest players charting the course together in search for a special win, Sharma would’ve become the youngest player in three decades to win the tournament while Mickelson was hunting for his first title in almost five years.
Eventually, Big Phil lifted the trophy in a dramatic playoff with Justin Thomas that ended in the early hours of Monday (India time) while Sharma had to be content with a ninth-place finish, which he shared with two-time Major winner Bubba Watson and Canadian Adam Hadwin.
After scores of 65, 66 and 69 in the first three rounds that catapulted him to the top with a two-shot lead, Sharma never really got going on the final day. He did not make his first birdie until the 12th hole and eventually finished with four bogeys in the last six holes for a score of three-over-74. He ended the week with a total of 10-under-274.
But Sharma earned a new legion of fans with his courageous show the whole week. The top-10 finish helped him climb nine places to be ranked 66th in the world, which means he occupies the last qualifying spot for the next World Golf Championship, the Dell Match Play, that will be played in Texas three weeks later. Before that, Sharma will play in the Indian Open in Gurgaon this week.
And he heads home having raised the hopes of an entire nation. “This will give hope to a lot more youngsters throughout the country,” says Jeev Milkha Singh. “It’s the belief system – if he can do it, I can too – that’s there. This will have a chain reaction.”
Jeev’s tied-fourth finish at the World Golf Championships in 2009 is the best-ever by an Indian on the PGA Tour, considered to be the toughest playing circuit. Sharma came close to bettering it but Jeev believes it is only a matter of time before the fellow Chandigarh golfer eclipses his record.
“For sure, he will. It’s amazing what he has done at 21 years old. I turned pro when I was 21. I am proud of the child,” Jeev says. “He’s going to learn. It’s the first time he has put himself in this situation and he will learn a lot from what happened yesterday. He is going to come out so strong, next time he will be in this situation he’s going to take it on and get it done.”
Jeev’s belief comes after closely following Sharma’s transition from being a novice practising at the golf range in Chandigarh to leading the money list on the European Tour. He may not be as powerful off the tee as the other young players in the world but is developing an uncanny ability to record really low scores. In his first full season on the Tour last year, he shot 61 in the second round of the Joburg Open, which he eventually won to become the youngest Indian champion on the European Tour. He followed it up with another low score of 62 in Kuala Lumpur last month to win the Malaysian Open.
His performance in Mexico City only reasserts his position as India’s fastest rising golfer. But as much as the whole week, Sharma believes he will benefit greatly from the experience of playing alongside Mickelson.
He seemed to relish the veteran American’s company, seeking his help in understanding the rules, like he did on the fifth hole when his ball was surrounded by television wires, or by merely watching him perform miracles with the golf club.
“Just playing with him has been fantastic. He’s obviously a great man, showed me a few great shots. He’s not afraid to go out there and get it out there and hit it at the pin, and he took some crazy clubs off the tee. But that’s what Phil is all about. I’ll never forget it. Especially on 16 where he made birdie, it was the loudest roar I ever heard in my life. It was fantastic,” Sharma said after his round. “If you would have asked me four months ago that I would be playing with Phil at a WGC event on the last day, I would have just laughed.”
Mickelson might not have recognised Sharma when they first met on Saturday. It is, however, unlikely that he – and the rest – will forget him any time soon.
List of feats:
Takes home prize money of 149,070 euros (approx Rs 1 crore 19 lakh) for his T9 finish at the WGC.
Leads the Race to Dubai ranking, ahead of Tommy Fleetwood, Li Haotang and Rory McIlroy
Jumps 9 places in the World Rankings to be placed 66th. He occupies the last spot for the WGC Match Play Championships in Texas later this month.
Will headline the Indian contingent at this week’s Indian Open in Gurgaon.