Sharma shows way for fu­ture of In­dian golf

Race to Dubai fron­trun­ner Shub­hankar is ready to show he’s a Master


BAN­GA­LORE: “Golf is a global game, and through­out our his­tory we have ex­tended in­vi­ta­tions to de­serv­ing in­ter­na­tional play­ers not oth­er­wise qual­i­fied,” said Fred Ri­d­ley, the chair­man of Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club, in a state­ment last week.

“As his re­sults have proven, Shub­hankar Sharma is a re­mark­able young player, and we look for­ward to wel­com­ing him to Au­gusta Na­tional in April.”

Masters in­vi­ta­tions such as that are rare — Ja­pan’s Ryo Ishikawa re­ceived the last one in 2013. But such has been Shub­hankar’s progress in his fifth year as a pro­fes­sional that it is un­likely that golf’s finest, such as Phil Mick­el­son, will mis­take him for a jour­nal­ist again. That hap­pened dur­ing the WGC-Mex­ico Cham­pi­onship, where the 21-yearold had the third-round lead at -13, be­fore a poor fi­nal-day 74 pushed him down into a tie for ninth place.

Last week­end, at the In­dian Open in New Delhi, he suf­fered an­other fi­nal-round melt­down, with three dou­ble-bo­geys and three bo­geys tak­ing the sheen off the six birdies he made. He even­tu­ally fin­ished in a tie for sev­enth, enough to ex­tend his lead over Eng­land’s Tommy Fleet­wood in the Euro­pean Tour’s Race to Dubai rank­ings.

With vic­to­ries in Jo­han­nes­burg and at the May­bank Cham­pi­onship in Kuala Lam­pur, Shub­hankar’s earn­ings for the year are nudg­ing to­ward €1 mil­lion ($1.2 mil­lion). That is a far cry from the 5,000 ru­pees ($76) that Ro­htas Singh got for win­ning the in­au­gu­ral Dun­lop In­vi­ta­tional Golf Cham­pi­onship at the Delhi Golf Course 40 years ago.

In that era, In­dia’s best golfers, like Ro­htas, Basad Ali and Ali Sher — the first In­dian to win the In­dian Open back in 1991 — were cad­dies-turned­pro­fes­sion­als, men whose hard slogs to the top had elicited lit­tle more than dis­dain from the elite that pop­u­lated the clubs.

More than a gen­er­a­tion on, golf re­mains largely the pre­serve of the well-off, and those from the armed ser­vices, who are given ac­cess to the best fa­cil­i­ties. Mo­han Lal Sharma, Shub­hankar’s fa­ther, was a colonel in the In­dian Army un­til he quit his job to be­come his son’s main source of sup­port as they trav­eled the world.

In­tro­duced to the game at the age of seven, on the ad­vice of Tushar Lahiri — an army doc­tor whose son, Anir­ban, was the high­est-ranked In­dian pro un­til Shub­hankar zipped past him this sea­son — the young man was part of a group of kids that thrived un­der the guid­ance of Jesse Gre­wal.

Gre­wal left a job in the tea gar­dens more than two decades ago to be the guid­ing light be­hind the coach­ing pro­grams at the Chandigarh Golf Club and the Golf Academy in the city. Un­like other clubs, where even mem­bers’ kids can strug­gle to get tee times, the Chandigarh club en­cour­aged the young­sters to play. Ajeetesh Sandhu and Him­mat Singh Rai came from the same sta­ble and have both won Asian Tour events.

But af­ter the era of the cad­dies, the path­break­ers for In­dian golf in an in­ter­na­tional sense were three men now in their mid-40s. Jeev Milkha Singh, the son of the Milkha Singh, who fin­ished fourth in the 400m hur­dles at the 1960 Rome Olympics, is now 46, and won on both the Euro­pean and Asian Tours. He also fin­ished tied for ninth at the US PGA Cham­pi­onship in 2008.

Jy­oti Rand­hawa, who twice topped the Asian Or­der of Merit, is a year younger, while the 44-yearold Ar­jun At­wal won the Wyn­d­ham Cham­pi­onship on the US PGA Tour in 2010, beat­ing David Toms. Lahiri, now 30, car­ried on that tra­di­tion, with his best fin­ish in a ma­jor be­ing a tie for fifth at the PGA Cham­pi­onship in 2015.

The chal­lenge for Shub­hankar is to find the con­sis­tency that proved elu­sive for his se­niors, none of whom re­ally left a dent on the PGA Tour. His fun­da­men­tals are sound, with a game that is tech­ni­cally well grooved and solid rather than John Daly spec­tac­u­lar. A veg­e­tar­ian, he is also an in­cred­i­bly fo­cused young man who has re­fused an equip­ment con­tract so that he can fill his golf bag with the clubs he feels most com­fort­able with.

In Mex­ico, his caddy was Gur­baaz Mann, who has be­come a men­tor for young golfers af­ter his own play­ing dreams were ru­ined by a hip in­jury. Mann at­tended Ari­zona State, Mick­el­son’s alma mater, and has promised Shub­hankar that he will find him a caddy who can help him thrive on a PGA Tour cur­rently agog with ex­cite­ment over the resur­gent form shown by Tiger Woods.

Shub­hankar was less than a year old when Woods won his first Masters. Next month, he will get the op­por­tu­nity to rub shoul­ders with the game’s elite, at a course sec­ond only to St. An­drews when it comes to golf­ing pres­tige. Time will tell if he can avoid the metaphor­i­cal bunkers and wa­ter haz­ards that pre­vented the likes of Jeev Milkha Singh from chal­leng­ing the very best.

SU­PER SWINGER: Shub­hankar Sharma has taken the golf­ing world by storm this sea­son. (Reuters)

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