Shubhankar Sharma: India's next big thing
April 17, 2018
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Shubhankar Sharma extended highlights | Round 2 | Mexico Championship
There was nothing boastful, nothing off-putting.
Sipping peppermint tea in the clubhouse overlooking the first tee at Club de Golf Chapultepec, home of the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, retired Col. Mohan Sharma, having taken off his ever-present straw hat, simply radiated a quiet confidence.
“We believe in God; we believe in fate,” Mohan said as he discussed his 21-year-old son, Shubhankar. “I think he will be there by himself at the end.”
Alas, after leading through three rounds, Sharma came back to Earth to finish T9 in Mexico. But Col. Sharma may yet be right. The time horizon for Sharma is a long one, and he may well be there by himself at the end, if by “the end” you mean whenever he reaches golfing maturity.
Tomorrow. Next week. Next month. Next year.
Sharma, 21, will play in this week’s Valero Texas Open on a sponsor’s exemption. He is attempting to reverse a mini-slump that saw him miss the cut by two at the Masters and Houston Open, and go 0-3 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Still, he has continued to charm. He called his first Masters “fantastic” and “invaluable,” praised the course as “superb,” and said the fans were “great” and a pleasure to play in front of.
“I just have to play better than what I have been playing now,” Sharma said. “But I know I have it in me; I've been playing well this whole season. I played well on the European Tour, I had two wins, so I know that my best is in front of me. So, I just have to get there and just a few things here and there and it will be good to get to Texas.”Sharma held a two-stroke lead going into the final round of the WGC-Mexico Championship. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Sharma won the Joburg Open and Maybank Championship, European Tour co-sanctioned events, to take the lead in the Race to Dubai and earn his spot in the WGC-Mexico Championship. There, after taking a two-shot lead through three rounds, he found himself in the same threesome with Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson on Sunday, when the occasion finally seemed to catch up with him as he shot 74. But all was not lost. He got to meet Phil Mickelson! (More on that later.) And within days, Sharma had been given a special invitation to the Masters Tournament.
A few days after that, Sharma took a share of the lead into the final round of the Hero Indian Open at his home course, DLF Golf & Country Club on the outskirts of New Delhi, only to shoot 75 and finish T7. Again, there was a silver lining: his world ranking was now up to 66th, getting him into the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Sharma was rising, which amplified the question many were asking in Mexico: Who is he?
The short answer to that question is Sharma is a player with so much upside that PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan, in announcing the appointment of 2019 Presidents Cup Captains Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, mentioned him as a potential International Team member. Arjun Atwal, the first Indian to win on TOUR at the 2010 Wyndham Championship, calls Sharma “an older soul” whose precision game recalls Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.
“He’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Atwal said.
Anirban Lahiri, who accounted for one of the rare highlights for the International Presidents Cup team at Liberty National last fall, echoed Atwal’s “older soul” assessment of Sharma.
“The differentiating factor between him and other 21-year-olds,” Lahiri said, “is how he approaches tournaments and his mental ability to focus and separate himself from the noise.”
Not that he’s completely impervious. Asked about Latin America at Chapultepec, Sharma praised Mexico and added, “It’s obviously a little distracting with so many good-looking girls walking.” He admitted to gawking at Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth on the driving range, and trying to act normal around the TOUR stars when he encountered them in the hotel gym. “Some of them say hi to me,” Sharma said, “which is very nice.”
If you weren’t charmed by Sharma in Mexico, you might want to see your cardiologist. He was playing in his first WGC and his first PGA TOUR event, and admitted it all felt surreal, like he was watching it all play out on TV in the wee hours of the morning back in India. Justin Thomas entered the final round just four back. Big-hitting Johnson was three behind.
Then there was Mickelson. Sharma and his caddie, Gurbaaz Mann, nervously approached the popular lefthander on the Chapultepec practice green prior to the third round, hoping to introduce themselves, but Mickelson thought they were members of the media.
“Not right now,” Mickelson said. “After the round.”
Sharma laughed as he related the mix-up, because why would Mickelson, who realized his mistake and apologized, think any differently? The kid came to Chapultepec ranked 75th in the world and still dizzy from his rapid ascent after two European Tour co-sanctioned victories.
“In the past four months,” he said, “my life has totally changed.”
His arrival in Mexico, economy class from Doha, Qatar, was about as under-the-radar as it gets. But his “arrival” on the world stage feels indelible for a few reasons. India has over a billion people; what might Sharma mean to them? What might he mean, competitively speaking, to Thomas, Jordan Spieth and the rest of them? Sharma’s ultimate goal is to play the PGA TOUR, and Mexico felt not like a cameo but the curtain opening to a potentially long-running hit show. You could hardly fault him for withering on the greens Sunday, unnerved by the crowds or the presence of eventual winner Mickelson, or both.
Still, Sharma hung around to shake every hand, sign every autograph. When the Official World Golf Ranking was released hours later, he would vault from 75th to 66th, and within hours of that he would be granted a special exemption into the Masters to become the fourth Indian to tee it up at Augusta, after Jeev Milkha Singh, Atwal and Lahiri.Shubhankar Sharma (C) walks with his sister, Vandini (L), and father, Mohan Lal Sharma (R), during the Par 3 Contest prior to the start of the 2018 Masters. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Anirban Lahiri, who was the highest-ranking Indian golfer until Sharma came along, has known the young phenom since they were kids. Lahiri’s father served in the Indian Army with Col. Mohan Sharma, and their relationship deepened when Dr. Tushar Lahiri, a gynecologist, helped deliver Shubhankar’s sister, Vandini. Back then, Anirban was the country’s top-ranked junior and Shubhankar was just turning 7. The two Army dads got to talking, with the doctor recommending to the Colonel that the latter take up golf with his boy.
Col. Mohan Sharma listened well.
His confidence in his son is well-founded; this is no ordinary family. Vandini is a published fiction and non-fiction writer at 16, and she covered the Masters for the Associated Press. Shubhankar was the same age when he left school to turn pro, but he is currently studying political science online; the Colonel says his son is on pace to get his undergraduate degree this summer. Dr. Neena Sharma, Shubhankar’s mother, has a PhD in yoga and alternative healing.
When Shubhankar Sharma speaks of golf’s appeal, he talks about the mental side.
“The best part is you’re always playing against the course and against yourself,” he said in Mexico.
Before his run-in with Mickelson, his greatest mental test came at the 2017 Hero Indian Open. About 10 days before the tournament, Sharma came down with a fever that kept him bedridden and unable to practice. He tried to play in the pro-am but withdrew on the third hole and went back to bed. The next day, without a warm-up, he gutted out an even-par 72.
“He was in bad shape,” said Jeev Milkha Singh, one of his playing partners that day. “He was coughing, taking his medication, his fluids, but his main goal was still to play well.”
Sharma made the cut the next day, only to run out of gas on the weekend and finish T40.
“I’ll never forget that first round,” the Colonel said with a smile. “Level par.”
The start of this season has brought more unforgettable moments. Sharma’s two quick victories to take pole position on the European Tour; meeting and playing against Mickelson at Chapultepec; playing in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the Houston Open and the Masters.
Now he heads to Texas again for the Valero at the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio. He’s living his TOUR dream in the flesh, in the sun, not on TV in the dark of night.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start,” Sharma said of his first two rounds in Mexico.
He could have been talking about his career.