PARTAB RAMCHAND | 9 MARCH, 2018
He Has Made The Golfing World Sit Up And Take Notice
Shubhankar Sharma climbs the international sports ladder.
Every now and then in this cricket crazy nation a non-cricketer becomes the most talked about sportsperson depending on his or her special achievements on the big stage. There is little doubt that Shubhankar Sharma now occupies that exalted status. His performance in the just concluded World Golf Championship in Mexico comes on top of a sterling show around the international circuit over the past few months and suddenly he has emerged as the hottest property among the young Indians in the sports market. It surely is not long before announcements are made confirming him as brand ambassador for a project or a company and his endorsement value is bound to go up many times.
When, and not if, that happens Shubhankar will be deserving of all the plaudits and the fame and money that goes with climbing the international sports ladder particularly in a high profile sport like golf. After all it is not every day that India produces a golfer who makes the golfing world sit up and take notice. But that is what Shubhankar has done.
It does not matter that Shubhankar’s hopes of winning on his PGA Tour debut were dashed by a torrid final round. He teed off in the final group along with Phil Mickelson and Tyrrell Hatton holding a two-shot lead and needing one more great round to become the youngest winner of a World Golf Championships event, as well as the first to win in his first WGC start.
However, his lead soon vanished and a closing stretch of four bogeys in his last six holes condemned him to a three-over 74 in the final round, pushing him down to a tie for ninth on 274. The Indian did not hide his disappointment. ``I was leading but I just couldn't finish it off today," he said. "But that's what the game is all about and what I learned, especially playing with Phil, I'll cherish it forever."
Shubhankar was six when he went to a golf course for the first time and got hooked on the sport. His father quit the Indian army to help his son chase his golfing goals. He has already tasted victory this season with European Tour victories in South Africa and Malaysia and his Joburg Open win earned him a ticket to this year's British Open.
Shubhankar who lives in Chandigarh though his family hails from Jammu and Kashmir, is the country's highest-ranked golfer at No. 66. A top 50 spot was needed to be assured of a place in next month's US Masters but such is the impact that Subhankar has made that the the tournament committee has extended an invitation ot him to participate in the prestigious competition.
"Golf is a global game, and throughout our history we have extended invitations to deserving international players not otherwise qualified," Fred Ridley, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, said in a statement. "As his results have proven, Shubhankar Sharma is a remarkable young player, and we look forward to welcoming him to Augusta National in April." Shubhankar will become the fourth Indian player to compete in the year's first major, following Jeev Milkha Singh, Arjun Atwal and Anirban Lahiri.
What makes everyone feel that Shubhankar is destined for greater heights is the fact that he is just 21. Five-times major champion Mickelson, who defeated Justin Thomas on the first playoff hole to win the event put things in proper perspective while analyzing Shubhankar’s game. "I saw how well he struck the golf ball. He hit a beautiful tee shot on one so you can tell he can really play," Mickelson said. "I saw some of the putts. I know he's a very talented player and I believe he's leading the Order of Merit on the European Tour, so I know what a great player he is. I probably shouldn't say that for he's 26 years younger than me!"
Mickelson had mistaken Shubhankar for a member of the media during third round play but will no doubt be able to put a name to the face in future. He could perhaps be excused for not recognising Shubhankar who has never played in the United States.
With his two European Tour victories, Sharma seems poised for a breakout year and Atwal said he has the mental game to match his golf skills. "To me, he has a very calm attitude. He doesn't get flustered, he takes everything in his stride and that's what I've always noticed about him," said the first Indian winner on the PGA Tour. "He's been very level headed since I've known him. I can't see him being upset or cussing. It's amazing to see what he's doing at the age of 21,’’
The final round in fact loomed as a David versus Goliath confrontation -- a five-time major champion against a 21-year-old in his first PGA Tour event. And despite holding a two shot lead Shubhankar was the underdog against such elite company. Despite the European Tour victories behind him it was fair to assume that a Shubhankar victory on the final day would reverberate around the golf world. After all he was one round from becoming the youngest winner of a World Golf Championships event, as well as the first to win in his first WGC start. Had he accomplished the feat he would have been the first player to win on his PGA Tour debut since Jim Benepe at the 1988 Western Open, eight years before the Indian was born.
Indeed Shubhankar is so young that Tiger Woods is too old to be his idol. Rather, he was inspired by staying up all night to watch Rory McIlroy win the 2011 US Open. "It went on until six in the morning back home," he recalled. "I remember I was so inspired that I didn't sleep, I just went straight to the range and hit balls for two hours."
Since then the same fierce determination has been with Shubhankar who turned pro when 16. And he has the temperament to put the disappointment of the final round quickly behind him and concentrate on the future. In any case his performance will be greeted with glee by golf administrators keen to tap the huge Indian market, which was in need of a genuine superstar from the country to make it happen. They have one now.