It’s astonishingly unprecedented. And, for all golf fans, not just Indians, more than a bit surreal: let it be recorded that in February 2018, less than three months after missing out on securing his card on the European Tour’s qualifying school, 21-year-old Shubhankar Sharma leads the Race to Dubai—the European Tour’s Order of Merit. It’s a staggering reversal of fortune, and your columnist is fast running out of adjectives to describe the young pro’s rise, nay, launch into golf’s stratosphere.
The celebrations had barely ended: Sharma’s virtuoso performance at the Joburg Open in December 2017 secured him his maiden title and right to ply his trade on the tour. That win, coming as it did less than three weeks after the let-down at the Q-School, was as remarkable as the winning score of 23-under that Sharma posted—a pretty good number to post at any tournament anywhere in the world. Even more tellingly, Sharma’s assured play and cool-as-ice temperament just seemed incongruous with someone who didn’t even have a full-time card on the tour.
Sharma had a great week, but even then, no one, including your columnist could have predicted that he was on a roll.
The surprise had barely worn off and he’s gone and done it again; this time on a much bigger stage—the 2018 Maybank Malaysian Championship—gobsmacking even the most prescient pundits of the sport. It’s a stunning accomplishment whichever way you look at it: depth of the field—Sharma beat seasoned winners of the likes of Lee Westwood, Pablo Larrazabal and Ryo Ishikawa; nerves—Sharma not only caught the leaders starting the final day four shots back but won by three strokes; quality of play—averaging over 14 greens in regulation. On the flip side, looking at the stats what becomes apparent is that Sharma did not display brilliance in any one aspect of the game. Except putting—in which he ranked seventh in the field, Sharma wasn’t even in the top-20 in any category. When you consider that he made the cut by a solitary stroke and was lying four strokes adrift of the leaders after day three you’ll forgive the media contingent for not issuing a single story on Sharma on the eve of the final round. Since his win your columnist has been besieged by calls from colleagues all over the world keen to get an insight into Sharma’s life.
At the time this column is being written, the European Tour has finally combed all its footage to pull out a highlight reel on Sharma’s final round blitz. The first thing those who’ve never seen Sharma in action will notice is his gorgeous golf swing—an action that he’s been famous for even before he won anything. But pretty swings do not necessarily translate into great scores and your columnist would highly recommend that you seek out and watch what sinking ten birdies in 18 holes looks like. If you didn’t know that though, there would be no way of knowing just by looking at Sharma’s demeanour; the man allowed himself not a smile all day, finally letting a tiny one go on the final hole. In fact he looked so ho-hum that you’d think the guy had a top-50 finish. And that is what makes him so dangerous—Sharma is in control of his emotions, and by implication, his game.
Only two Indians—Jeev Milkha Singh and Anirban Lahiri—have won twice in one season on the European Tour; and neither did so in their first year on that tour. Not only is this Sharma’s rookie year, he’s only teed it up in 13 tournaments out of which he’s won two and missed the cut in only one. Sharma won over half a million dollars in Malaysia; is currently ranked first on tour for 2018; and has gone from a world raking of over 200 to 72nd in the world which pole vaults him above Lahiri (76). It defies imagination.
From a player, who till three months back, looked ready to spend a year honing his skills in Asia, to one who has bulldozed his way into the British Open 2018, got a spot at a World Golf Championships event in Mexico and is talking about breaking into the top-50 in the world—Sharma has literally, come out of nowhere.
The fact that most forget is that inspite of being only 21 years old, Sharma is no rookie to the pro ranks: he took the step when he was merely 16—a decision that, predictably, got as much criticism as compliments. For players who’ve taken the step to turn pro that early, burnout in the twenties has been a very real issue. Sharma, by all indications looks set to be the exception that proves the rule.
It’s hard not to get ahead of oneself in an extraordinary situation like he finds himself in. As the veteran Jeev Milkha Singh recently wrote in a column for a national daily, Sharma needs to stay grounded, surround himself with the right people, and manage his playing schedule smartly to avoid injuries. Singh was once ranked 28th in the world—the highest world ranking by an Indian ever. As he says himself, there’s no reason to believe that Sharma will not replicate that feat.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game