The 66th-ranked player in the world will make a run for the 2018 Hero Indian Open today. Considering that he’s leading the Race to Dubai on the Continental Tour and the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour, this man is in fine form. A fact not lost on the (Augusta) Masters committee that has extended a special invitation for him to tee it up with the top 50 players in the world next month in Georgia. Even Rory McIlRoy, former world number one, has reached out, and asked this man if he’s interested in playing a practice round with the Ulsterman at Augusta. Typically, at Augusta, all top players in the world set up practice rounds with players who’ve won there, or know the course really well. Considering that this man has never even played at Augusta, what insight can Rory possibly glean from his play? The answer to that, in your columnist’s estimation, is sizing up the competition. Just ask Phil Mickelson who shooed away this man—mistaking him for a media person—when the latter went up to introduce himself on the practice green in Mexico last week. Lefty can be excused for not recognising this man, considering that it was his very first PGA Tour event, and a World Golf Championship at that. Imagine Mickelson’s reaction at being informed later that this man, was in fact, leading the tournament: sincere apologies ensued. Shubhankar Sharma will not need any further introductions. The world watched as the youngest man in the field led the WGC event for three days and, in spite of being paired with Mickelson over the weekend, stayed in the mix and ground out a top 10 finish.
Mickelson was effusive in his praise: “I saw how well he struck the golf ball. He hit a beautiful tee shot on (hole number) one, you can tell he can really play…” said the man of the kid. At 47, Mickelson was the oldest man in the field, legend and hero to a boy 26 years younger than him. It was almost poetic watching two generations of golf go step-by-step. At one point, Sharma asked Mickelson for advice instead of calling a marshal for a rules query; Mickelson on his part showed the new kid on the block how it’s done—with a masterful performance to win the event. Not just Rory, but all the top players in the world are looking at 21-year-old Sharma who, in the past six months, has made the most emphatic statement of intent the world of golf has heard in this millennium. No, that’s not an overstatement: in over two decades of playing and watching the game, your columnist has never been witness to such a fairytale. Except that in Sharma’s case, it’s all real. This column was always going to be about Sharma: his exploits at the WGC Mexico Championship last week pretty much assured that. Even on Thursday, when—jetlagged and tired after flying halfway around the world—he stared down the barrel after his opening nine of the Hero Indian Open, it did not cause any heartburn. Give the man a break… seemed to be the prevailing consensus—he’s human, despite his otherworldly play over the past few months. For the record, this column would have read precisely this way up to this point had Sharma missed the cut at the 2018 Hero Indian Open. But fans are so much more accepting of their heroes. Much more so than the heroes themselves and Sharma was not going to have any of that.
Not at his national open, not in this spectacular season, and definitely not at his home course—the treacherous DLF G&CC—in suburban Gurugram. This course was voted the hardest track on the European Tour in 2017: with a surfeit of water bodies, elevation changes, cruel greens and undulations galore, the DLF G&CC is as tough a test of golf as the Indian Open has ever presented. And unlike the Delhi Golf Club, where the smart money is always on an Indian winner, the DLF G&CC affords no such advantage to the home squad. Sharma’s script went much as its been wont to go in these last few months; stem the bleeding, and then push right up the leaderboard. Four birdies on his second nine on Thursday led to a closing 32 that presented a foil to the 41 at the turn and Sharma teed it up on Friday a solitary stroke above par and eight strokes adrift of the leader, Emiliano Grillo. There were no mistakes in Sharma’s second round, save for an unlucky bogey on the 456-yard par-four seventh hole. Offset by an incredible nine birdies, Sharma romped home with an eight-under 64—the new low mark for the course. At the time this column is being written, Sharma is about to tee off for his third round, paired in the final grouping with Grillo who he trails by four strokes. At this point, one can only conjecture on Sharma’s frame of mind, but given that he’s fresh off a weekend pairing with Mickelson, at one of the highest-profile events in the world and the extreme media and gallery attention that comes with it, one can safely assume that he must fancy his chances. There could not be a more appropriate event, or a more opportune time, for a coronation. But, again, win or lose, Shubhankar Sharma is already our champion golfer of the year. Come to the DLF C&CC today and doff your hat.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game