Asia’s young and aspiring stars have blossomed in near perfect sync to deliver golfing bliss to the continent’s growing legion of fans at the Masters.
As the azaleas and dogwood prepare to bloom, signalling the arrival of spring and the year’s first major, the Masters Tournament, Asia’s young and aspiring stars have blossomed in near perfect sync to deliver golfing bliss to the continent’s growing legion of fans, writes Chuah Choo Chiang.
Amongst the emerging crop of leading regional performers, young Indian Shubhankar Sharma has undoubtedly been the name on everybody’s lips following his double victory in South Africa and Malaysia. Plus, a mesmerising debut at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, where he held the 36-hole, and 54-hole lead before finishing tied ninth announced his arrival on one of the game’s the biggest stage.
At 21, Sharma is proving himself to be the real deal. He can consistently hit it straight with every club in his bag, he putts the ball beautifully and owns a calm temperament thanks largely to meditation taught by his mother since he was a child. In addition, Sharma is humble and has the personality that every parent would be proud of.
Jeev Milkha Singh, one of India’s greatest players, has labelled his young countryman as the “complete package”. While Arjun Atwal, the only Indian to
win on the PGA TOUR to date, calls Sharma a young man with an “older soul” which is evident through his maturity on and off the golf course. Anirban Lahiri has predicted it would only be a matter of time before Sharma joins him on the PGA TOUR.
An army brat where his father, Colonel Mohan Sharma served in the Indian armed forces and was coaxed by Lahiri’s father to teach his son the game, Shubhankar has been a great benefactor of the Asian Tour, the region’ governing body for the professional game.
Through playing opportunities across the region, the first sight of Sharma as a new prospect came at the 2016 Resorts World Manila Masters where he fired a final round 62 to finish tied fourth, which helped seal his full card for the 2017 Asian Tour season.
Sharma went on to register four top-10s during 2017, and several weeks after missing out on his European Tour card at Qualifying School late last year, the young Indian pulled off a career-changing victory at the Joburg Open in South Africa, highlighted by a stunning 61 during the second round.
In February, Sharma was at it again, this time producing some final round fireworks at the Maybank Championship in Malaysia where he closed with a scintillating 62 to win by two strokes. From being ranked a lowly 521st in November, Sharma has since shot up to 64th on the world rankings (as at March 12) and seized the lead on both the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and Asian Tour’s Habitat for Humanity rankings.
The early season success rewarded Sharma with a maiden World Golf Championships appearance in Mexico City and competing against a backdrop of global stars which included the world’s top-5 golfers and 45 players from the top-50, Sharma brilliantly rose to the occasion and captivated fans and media alike with his wonderful all-around game and charming personality.
Cards of 65 and 66 pushed him into the halfway lead and a third round 69 kept him two ahead of a star-studded pack. It earned him a final day grouping with World Golf Hall of Famer, Phil Mickelson, who won the tournament for his 43rd PGA TOUR title after a pulsating final day shootout. Such was the dizzying excitement back home
that #GoShubhankar trended on Twitter in India during the final day in Mexico.
Despite his final round 74, Sharma stood very tall and made time for his newfound fans by taking photos with them and performed the obligatory media duties with a smile despite the huge disappointment on a day when his putter went dead cold.
Mickelson, who had initially brushed Sharma off as media when the Indian tried to say “hello” to him on the practice putting green before round three, was full of praise of the young Indian.
“I saw how well he struck the golf ball. He hit a beautiful tee shot on 1, and you can tell he can really play. I saw some of the putts, some of the highlights with the putter. 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 Mr Sharma is. I probably shouldn’t say that, he’s 26 years younger than me!” said Mickelson, who pipped reigning FedExCup No. 1 Justin Thomas with a par on the first sudden-death playoff hole to win the WGCMexico Championship.
As Sharma boarded the long flight home to Delhi, the letdown was greatly reduced when he received a phone call from Augusta National Golf Club, informing him that he was the recipient of a special invitation to play in the Masters Tournament. It will be his Major debut.
He tweeted: “I am deeply honoured to be found worthy of invitation by the Masters Committee. It’s a dream come true. My gratitude.”
Whatever happens come the Masters weeks, amidst the blooming azaleas and dogwoods at August National, Sharma’s continued rise in the game, as with success shown by fellow Asians, Li Haotong of China and Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, only bode well for the game in Asia and around the world.
He will certainly cherish the drive along Magnolia Lane, and the road to stardom and the PGA TOUR could just be around the next turn. This could truly be a memorable spring for Sharma and Asian golf.
6KDUPD KHOG WKH KROH DQG KROH OHDG EHIRUH finishing tied ninth announced his arrival on one of the game’s the biggest stage at the WGC0H[LFR &KDPSLRQVKLS
Sharma earned himself a ILQDO GD\ JURXSLQJ ZLWK :RUOG *ROI +DOO RI )DPHU 3KLO 0LFNHOVRQ ZKR won the tournament for KLV UG 3*$ 7285 WLWOH DIWHU D SXOVDWLQJ ILQDO GD\ shootout