Shubhankar Sharma, a 21-year-old Indian golfer who first experienced a golf course through an unusual coincidence, has recently been invited to play in the 2018 Masters, arguably the most prestigious tournament in the world of golf. Here’s how he got there.
Sharma grew up in Chandigarh, India, and is the son of retired Col. Mohan Lal. Sharma. The Colonel was stationed at the same post as the father of Anirban Lahiri — another Indian professional golfer who is nine years older than Shubhankar Sharma. Lahiri was a top junior golfer at the time, and over a casual conversation between his father and Mohan Lal Sharma, his father brought up introducing young Shubhankar to golf as well.
“This is a great game. You’ll find that if you take him to golf,” Lahiri’s father coaxed, according to an article posted on the PGA website.
And so, for the first time, father and son went to the golf course together. However, it wasn’t the picture-perfect, “Upper East Side” introduction to golf with a full set of equipment and copious lessons.
“No one in our family played golf. [My father] bought a set and I would tag along with him on the course. After a month or two, he got me a cut-down 2-iron. That was my first club,” Sharma said.
“Sharma is a really good kid. He comes from a humble background. He’s kind of like myself—Army brats. We didn’t have all the luxurious equipment or facilities. We’re grinders,” Lahiri said.
Similar to many children, Sharma grew up playing the sports that appealed to his friends. In India, that meant cricket after school. Golf was not a part of most Indians’ lives. It was an expensive sport more or less reserved for older uncles whose bellies kept them to 13 holes, perhaps 14 if they felt up to the challenge. The few kids that did get the opportunity to play were those who then turned into India’s professional golfers, Anirban Lahiri, Arjun Atwal, and now, Shubhankar Sharma.
“But golf was different,” Sharma claimed. “That’s what appealed to me. When I was 12 or 13, knew I was going to be a professional golfer.”
As Sharma began showing his talent on the course, his father retired from the Army to help out with Sharma’s golf game. At the mere age of 16, Sharma decided to turn pro. This was a bold decision that kept him from sporting India’s colors at the World Amateur Team Championship and other amateur events. In general, once an athlete turns pro, they are no longer permitted to compete in amateur tournaments in order to give the others a chance. Sharma was determined with his decision, and it was this determination that guided him through the intimidating process of making golf his entire life.
In the year after he turned pro, Sharma played on the Asian Development Tour, a professional golf tour equivalent to the Web.com Tour in the U.S., designed to give beginning professionals a chance at winning tournaments and qualifying for more elite ones. He finished fourth in the Panasonic Open India, and Asian Tour tournament in which he qualified to play.
Between 2015 and 2017, Sharma primarily played on the Asian Tour. In 2015, he once again placed fourth in the Panasonic Open India, and shortly after, he placed third in the Bashundhara Bangladesh Open.
After a few years of hard work, Sharma finally achieved his first tour win at the Joburg Open in December 2017. However, despite this win, Sharma still remained in the shadows of professional golf; this small tournament alone was not enough to propel his career to the next level.
In February, Sharma shot a final round 62 to win the Maybank Championship at an impressive 21 strokes under par. Being a larger event co-sanctioned by the Asian and European Tours, the Maybank Championship win propelled Sharma into the world top-100 golfers for the first time.
Despite being 5-foot-6-inches tall and not very long off the tee, with this win, Sharma proved that he could go low and win a tournament. Many attribute his success to his composure on the course, including Lahiri.
“He’s got such a great temperament,” applauded Lahiri. “He got off to a rough start, hung in there, and managed to finish [very well]. I was really impressed with his grit. He’s got a really stable head on his shoulders. And the best thing about his golf is he can really go low. He’s not scared to make birdies in bunches.”
It was this great temperament that helped Sharma achieve more success following the Maybank Championship. He took an early lead in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, a season-long competition to crown Europe’s top golfer. The lead earned him a spot in the 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship, a tournament held just last week.
The tournament hosted some of the world’s top golfers; Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler to name a few to compete at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Naucalpan, Mexico, just west of Mexico City. At this point, it was safe to say that Sharma was not one of these well-known names.
After two out of four rounds, Sharma held first place by two strokes. Despite his impressive standing on the leaderboard, when Sharma approached Mickelson — the well-known lefty golfer worth over 350 million USD — Mickelson mistook him for press and told him off.
“Me and my caddy, we both went up to him,” Sharma told the press. “He thought we were media and he said, ‘Not right now, after the round.’ Then he realized and said, ‘So sorry, I thought you were media,’ and he said hi, I said hi. Then he made a few putts and he came back to me and said, ‘Have a good day.’ It was nice.”
After the third round, Sharma kept the lead at 13 under; however, in the final round, he faltered and ended up giving over the lead to none other than Mickelson. Yes, Sharma failed to bring home the WGC-Mexico Championship at Chapultepec. However, the 21-year-old received something far better than a trophy.
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, announced on Tuesday that Sharma had received and accepted an invitation to compete in the 2018 Masters.
“Golf is a global game,” Ridley said. “Throughout our history we have extended invitations to deserving international players not otherwise qualified. As his results have proven, Shubhankar Sharma is a remarkable young player, and we look forward to welcoming him to Augusta National in April.”
The young golfer expressed his delight over Twitter upon hearing the news of his inclusion in the Masters.
“I am deeply honoured to be found worthy of invitation by the Masters Committee. It’s a dream come true. My gratitude.”
Although Sharma did not officially qualify to compete in the Masters, he received a special exemption due to his outstanding recent performance. The last player to receive such an exception was Ryo Ishikawa in 2013.
The Masters this year will be Sharma’s first major championship, and he will also become the fourth Indian golfer to play in the Masters when he tees it up in early April. It’s a proud moment for India, a country that doesn’t tend to send that many golfers to the Asian Tour, let alone the Masters.
Shubhankar Sharma has made tremendous progress in this past season. Just three months ago, Sharma was a name unknown in the world of golf. Now, after two Tour wins, the lead in the Race to Dubai, and a top-ten finish in the WGC-Mexico Championship, the young golfer is ranked 66th in the entire world. His odds for winning the Masters are still 20 times lower than Jordan Spieth, but considering his performance in the past few months, I still see him finishing up there with all the big name players.