Yes, Shubhankar Sharma missed out in Malaysia. And that’s okay. We need to give the kid a break.
Give the kid a break. The day after his final-round charge at the PGA Tour’s CIMB Classic in Malaysia fizzled out on the back nine, newspaper headlines in the country went as far as suggesting the 22-year-old golfer was nervous and choked. At the post-round press conference at the TPC Kuala Lumpur, Sharma looked crestfallen at worst. “…there was some wait on the 11th hole and I was in between clubs, so I was trying to hit a soft rescue and that was probably one of the worst swings of the day and that ended up in the water. After that, it was just a trend of hitting bad shots. Even the next hole after that I hit it in the bunker, I had a relatively easy shot and I duffed it and couldn’t make up and down…” he rued after the round.
Duffed? I have never heard a pro admit before that he ‘duffed’ a shot. Of course, they do every now and then, but no one is candid enough to admit it. Sharma also admitted that he had momentum killer and probably lost focus. This disarming lack of reticence is fast endearing Sharma to the press corps on the PGA Tour. He’s a fanboy, genuinely elated to be playing golf for a living, amongst his heroes, and makes no attempt to hide it.
A few months back, as the last few groups of players on the South Course of the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, finished their practice round, one player was still out on the course, waiting, patiently, for precisely that moment. The lone figure of Sharma, 168 yards out on the 18th fairway, wasn’t visible from the clubhouse overlooking the green. Eight-iron in hand, Sharma could barely discern the contours of the fairway snaking up to the green. But he knew the shot he had to play; he’d seen it hundreds of times.
The 22-year-old was three-years-old when Tiger Woods hit that iconic eight-iron from precisely the spot where Sharma was standing. Woods couldn’t see the green, but hit it to within 2 feet to win the 2000 WGC-NEC Championship, and holed the winning putt in the flicker of cigarette lighters’ held up by the gallery.
For Sharma, that was the kind of defining moment that got him into the game. Eighteen years later, with the PGA Tour’s camera crew in tow, he’d found the exact spot and was trying to replicate Woods’ iconic approach. “It’s so much harder than I thought. Can’t you please show this as my first shot?” he asked impishly.
Sharma’s ambition at the WGC Bridgestone Championship was first and foremost to “gather up the courage to go and introduce myself to Tiger Woods! The last time he acted on an impulse like that—in March this year at his first WGC event in Mexico—walking across to Phil Mickelson on the practice green to introduce himself, it didn’t end so well. Mickelson, mistaking Sharma for a journalist, shooed him away. Sharma got his own back by leading that tournament and being paired with Mickelson in the final round.
Sharma’s rise in world golf is hard to put into perspective because there are no other models in the order of players amongst whom he ranks. After CIMB, he leads the order of merit on the Asian Tour and is ranked 113th in the world, has been awarded the Arjuna Award and is in the running for a spot on the President’s Cup team. Not bad for a kid, you say? I concur.
Sharma’s career has never followed a conventional progression: he turned pro at the age of 16 years after winning the All-India Amateur. No one is questioning that decision now; “I will do what gives me the best shot at progressing on the global stage and, if becoming the top-ranked player in Asia is one of those things, then I’ll give it my best shot,” he says, with a level of tact that belies his age.
Sharma’s success in 2018 has opened up the floodgates when it comes to corporate support, but tellingly, he refers to individuals who he’s sticking with because they’ve been there for him when he needed them the most. “I’ve been so lucky, especially with sponsors. Rajeev Singh of DLF has supported me from the time I was an amateur. It’s no exaggeration if I say that without DLF’s support, my path to where I am now would have been extremely rough.” Besides DLF, Sharma speaks glowingly about Aloke Lohia of Indorama, a Thai-based MNC, who’s been a sponsor since 2015, and HR Srinivasan of Take Solutions. “I’m just one… HR Srinivasan has done so much to support so many golfers.” Almost as an afterthought, Sharma mentions the biggest deal—the details of which he doesn’t divulge—with Nike. “I’m contracted with Nike on a long-term basis. I guess I’m on the right track.”
As he navigates the dog-eat-dog world of professional sport, Sharma is single-mindedly focused on the game, leaving his father to iron out logistics and sponsorships. He’s refused the extremely lucrative option of getting an equipment sponsor because he plays with a mixed bag of clubs. “You need sponsors to support your game, but if your game gets disturbed, then what’s the point?” And even though he’s happy playing in Europe, the long game, like most pros, lies in America. “It definitely is still a goal to try and earn my PGA TOUR card this year. That’s my aim and I want to make it there.” Considering he nearly won the CIMB Classic, it appears that the young man is right on track.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game.