Last night, my friend Patrick Ho—who edits the Malaysian edition of Golf Digest magazine—posted an update from the Asian Tour’s Royal Cup that he’s attending in Pattaya, Thailand. Ho, an ardent supporter of Malaysian golf, and a keen player himself, usually posts incisive commentary on the governance of the game in his country, as well as interviews of Malaysian players (like the young Gavin Green who currently leads the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit). This one post though, caught my attention because the two pictures accompanying the post weren’t of Malaysian players but rather of Shiv Kapur and Gaganjeet Bhullar. Kapur and Bhullar, both winners on the Asian Tour in the 2017-18 season were the clubhouse leaders on the first day of the tournament, and Ho had posted the pictures without prefacing an introduction to either. Considering that most of the people who follow Ho on social media are Malaysians, it was a striking comment on the rising popularity of Indian golfers.
A few years back, I’d reach out to Ho to ask him about players from that country who I didn’t know much about when I had to write about them, and he’ do the same. Not so in 2017: no one needs an introduction to Kapur and Bhullar, or Shubhankar Sharma, Ajeetesh Sandhu, and Rashid Khan for that matter.
In the last few years the bar has steadily moved up to the point that we golf fans in India don’t congregate at the 19th hole of our home clubs every time an Indian golfer strikes gold on the Asian Tour. Now we want more: is Anirban Lahiri listening?
But no one, your columnist included, quite expected the sustained brilliance from a hitherto unproven (at least on the world stage) youngster who notched up his maiden victory on the European Tour this month: 21-year-old Shubhankar Sharma looked so self-assured at the Joburg Open in South Africa that it was uncanny. Sharma, certainly had enough gremlins lurking in the shadows to unnerve him: he’d finished 69th in the European Tour’s Q-School a few weeks before the tournament that only got him conditional playing rights. He’d also come undone on the big stage in the past, notably in a playoff loss to Chikkarangappa at the Take Solutions Indian Masters in 2015. Leading up to the Joburg Open he’d come close, notching up a few top-10 finishes in five Asian Tour events but never really making a concerted run for the title. And yet here he was, brilliant—shooting an 11-under 61 in the second round; patient—guarding his five shot lead going into the final day; and mentally strong—refusing to get shaken by a rain delay that meant he had to complete his triumph on a Monday. For Sharma, who very nearly did not make the trip to South Africa, the win brings full playing rights on the European Tour, and even more significantly gets him a spot at his self confessed dream tournament—the British Open. For someone who in November 2017 was ranked 482nd in the world, it’s been a startling rise to the biggest stage in professional golf. And, as if to emphasise on his new-found stature, Sharma proceeded, the very next week, to wrest the McLeod Russel Championship from Rashid Khan’s capable hands. Sharma now has five wins in his six-year-old fledgling career.
Coming back to the Royal Cup: Sharma isn’t in the running in the event, the final round of which will be in progress as you read this column. At the time of writing, resurgent man Kapur is the clubhouse leader at the midway stage. At seven-under Kapur shares the lead with the big-hitting Thai—Prom Meesawat. Can Kapur pull a third victory this year? For the DGC veteran to come out all guns blazing in 2017, winning twice on the Asian Tour including a much awaited win at his home course, is for me, the breakaway performance of the year by an Indian golfer.
Perhaps the least surprising would be if Bhullar, who after two rounds is lying three shots adrift of the leaders, can yet again rally to the occasion and win his second title of the year. The 29-year-old Bhullar has made something of a habit of winning on the Asian Tour, and with eight victories in the bag remains the youngest player ever to do so. Lying at four-under with Bhullar is the one Indian player who’s probably the most determined of the lot: Khalin Joshi finished second at an Asian Tour event a couple of years back but hasn’t been able to reprise that form in 2017. Of all the Indians in the field, a victory at Pattaya would mean most to Joshi.
Ajeetesh Sandhu who’s also not in the field is another golfer who deserves a mention for his exploits this year. In October, Sandhu won his maiden Asian Tour title at Taipei and followed it up the subsequent week by winning on the Japanese Challenge Tour. And what can one say about the man who owns the home turf: SSP Chawrasia made it look ridiculously simple at the ridiculously difficult DLF Golf & Country Club when he won the Hero Indian Open by no less than seven strokes this year. Chawrasia has established a monopoly when it comes to big-ticket events in India.
Indian pros in 2017 form one of the biggest contingents on the Asian Tour and the youngsters have great support from senior players. Spare a thought for the astonishing Aditi Ashok, all by herself on the LPGA and Ladies European Tours, plying her trade away from home and hearth. Ranked 82nd in the world Ashok won the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Open in Abu Dhabi last month taking her tally of professional titles to five. She’s still only 19, and till 2016, was playing amateur golf. It’s hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of this Bengaluru girl’s meteoric rise.
I’ll sign off with the enduring image of Pawan Munjal posing with Tiger Woods at the Hero World Challenge, and with the winner—Rickie Fowler. The entire golfing world had watched the event for TW’s comeback. In 2005 when Hero Motors took over the sponsorship of the Indian Open, the purse was a mere $300,000. That’s almost what Chawarasia took home in the $1.75 million 2017 edition. And today Hero Motors sponsors a tournament on the PGA Tour as well as TW. Stuff like this is impossible to predict.