Going into the fourth round at the WGC-Mexico Championship two months ago, Shubhankar Sharma had played three rounds of 65-66-69, in the process leading golfers of the calibre of Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, among others, in a star-studded field. He slipped on the final day, still finishing a creditable tied ninth in his first appearance at a PGA Tour.

Avid golf followers first sat up when this 21-year old shot an exceptional round of 61 at the Joburg Open in South Africa on his way to winning the tournament, jointly sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours. By
the time he won the Maybank Championship in Malaysia, he was well and truly in the spotlight. From getting an invitation to play at the Augusta Masters this April to earning a berth to play at the British Open later in the year, Shubhankar’s rise has been the story in Indian golf in 2018.

Son of a retired army colonel, Shubhankar took to the sport quite by chance. His dad and golfer Anirban Lahiri’s dad, an army doctor, were posted at the same place. On the advice of his fellow armyman, Col. Mohan Sharma introduced 7-year old Shubhankar to the sport. Anirban was already playing junior level golf at that point. Shubhankar knew he wanted to become a golfer by the time he turned 12. Col. Sharma soon left the army to be with his son, as he turned pro at 16. Based out of Chandigarh, Sharma was inspired by Jeev Milkha Singh, who practiced on the same course. Jeev himself has been an admirer of his sound temperament from an early age. “My mother is into meditation, and is the one who taught me to be calm under pressure. From dad I get my aggression, and the relentless pursuit of excellence,” he recently said. Friend and fellow golfer Anirban Lahiri observed, “I played with him last year at the Malaysian Open. He got off to a rough start, hung in there and managed to finish in the top 10. 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.”

Going from six hundred to the mid-sixties in the world rankings has been a meteoric rise. In this season of runaway success, he has also learnt the importance of finishing strong. At both WGC, Mexico and the Indian Open in Gurugram’s DLF golf course, he was in the lead going into the final day, but could not capitalise. “In the Indian Open, I was tied for the lead, whereas in WGC, I was leading. On the last day, you have to have momentum on your side. In Mexico, I thought I played well but the
putts didn’t go in. And in the Indian Open, I started really well but played a few bad swings, got unlucky in a few shots; little things that put one out of contention. You learn from your losses, and become a stronger and better player,” said Shubhankar, in an interview to The Hindu.

Only three other golfers have won twice on the European Tour in their first 20 starts, over the last two decades- Shubhankar joins the ranks of Luke Donald, Jeunghun Wang and Jon Rahm. Over the past two
decades, India has produced a steady stream of golfers who have won on the world stage. Jeev Milkha Singh, Jyoti Randhawa, Arjun Atwal, Anirban Lahiri, Gagandeep Bhullar and a clutch of others have done India proud, but the country still awaits a breakthrough player. Could
Shubhankar be that player? At 21, he has age on his side.

The reigning Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, who faced off against Shubhankar at the WGC match play, lavished praise on the Indian youngster. “It was a good match, and I enjoyed playing alongside Shubhankar as he is a very good player, and certainly has some talent,”
he said. “He didn’t surprise me, not at all, because I knew he was a good player and he has been playing some fantastic golf, and what he has been achieving has not been because of luck.” Garcia and Shubhankar were tied going into the 18th tee. A veteran of match play format, Garcia pipped Shubhankar to the post. Watch out for Shubhankar as he steps into the haloed Augusta Masters this April.