The Order of Merit race on the Asian Tour is fast becoming a contest between Sharma who leads it, and Bhullar who’s now fourth and expected to rise further when the list is updated at the end of this week.
It’s Friday night and the second round of the PGA Championship is underway. Tiger Woods has made three birdies in the first five holes and sinks a clutch 15-footer for par on the par-3 sixth hole to keep his momentum going. At three-under after seven holes, Woods smashes his drive 321 yards on the eighth hole before the bugle blows. Play is called off due to inclement weather and possibility of lightning strikes. The huge gallery following Woods’ marquee group, that includes Roxy McIlRoy and Justin Thomas, lets out a collective sigh before dissipating. Irrespective of what Woods’ naysayers say, that gallery—with at least twice as many spectators as there are on the rest of the golf course—is a striking testament to Woods’ unique ability to draw interest and viewership to the game. At three-under, the resurgent Woods is seven strokes behind Gary Woodland who was amongst the morning groups that managed to finish their second rounds. Woodland, known more for his long-driving abilities and little else, has been working on his putting, and the results are showing.
Not surprisingly, there’s no live coverage of Shubhankar Sharma: the top-ranked Indian is a stroke behind Woods at two-under with 11 holes left to play in his second round. With Anirban Lahiri not making the cut, Sharma will play the weekend for the second time in a Major Championship provided he can play out the remainder of his second round in one-over or better—the cut is likely to be applied at even par. It’ll be a fitting end to Sharma’s 2018 campaign in Major Championships—he’s only the third Indian to play all the big ones in a single season after Jeev Milkha Singh and Lahiri. Even though Lahiri lost the momentum of the previous week going (he recorded his best finish, a tied-sixth, at a World Golf Championship), the PGA Championship marked his 15th appearance at a Major—the most by any Indian golfer.
While golf fans and commentators, your columnist included, have spent the last few months tittering in a breathless way about Sharma’s exploits, Gaganjeet Bhullar, the Kapurthala lad, has been going about his business in trademark unhurried fashion. Bhullar, who has possibly the finest golf swing in Indian golf, tends to start seasons slow and easy (just like his backswing), picks up momentum along the way, and really pushes into high gear towards the latter half of the year. Every year, just when you haven’t heard a peep out of him, suddenly, Bhullar comes around and wins on the Asian Tour—literally like clockwork. This year, though, he gave adequate notice that a win was on the cards: in May, he nearly won the GS Caltex Maekyung Open in Korea, finishing second to local Sanghyun Park, and had to play bridesmaid again at the Queen’s Cup in Thailand in June. But when it mattered most, at a co-sanctioned European-Asian Tour event in Fiji, Bhullar got the job done in spectacular style.
Leading by one going into the final round, Bhullar found himself trailing the clubhouse leader, Anthony Quayle, who set the bar at 13-under par after shooting a 29 on the back nine. Bhullar got the lead back by holing a chip for eagle on the penultimate hole of the tournament, and then held his nerve for a par on the last for a brilliant nine-under 63 to close out the tournament. It was Bhullar’s ninth Asian Tour triumph—the most by any Indian—and first on tier-one of the European Tour (Bhullar won a European Challenge Tour event back in 2011). Most importantly, Bhullar now has full playing rights on the European Tour until the end of next season. It’s the third victory on the Continental circuit by an Indian in this season to go with the pair of titles won by Sharma earlier this year.
“I’ve been playing really well,” said Bhullar after the win. “It was just a matter of time and I’m glad it happened on this stage and really happy to be back on the European Tour. I played two full seasons back in 2013 and 2014 on the European Tour and then I had to come back to the Asian Tour because of my injury. So I think this victory is really emotional for me in terms of playing opportunity and getting back on European soil.” The victory gets Bhullar into the lucrative CIMB Classic sanctioned by the Asian Tour and PGA Tour this October and puts him in the running to qualify for the WGC-HSBC Championship. Sporting a handsome moustache, Bhullar has upped his style quotient these days and his game appears to be backing the flamboyance.
The Order of Merit race on the Asian Tour is fast becoming a contest between Sharma who leads it, and Bhullar who’s now fourth and expected to rise further when the list is updated at the end of this week. Even more exciting is the fact that Bhullar is now within touching distance of the top 100 in the world. If he gets in, it’ll be the first time that three Indians have ranked in that top echelon of pro golfers. With so much going on, it’s easy to forget that there’s an Asian Tour event—the $350,000 TAKE Solutions Masters—underway at the KGA in Bengaluru where Chikkarangappa is spearheading the Indian challenge. The fact that it’s only a footnote in this round-up is an astounding indication of how exciting these times are for Indian golf.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game