Joburg delight to qualifying for US Open, a look at six key moments in Shubhankar Sharma's ride to Rookie of the Year award
No doubt Shubhankar Sharma will go on to achieve a lot more in his career, but let’s have a look at six tournaments this season that he will have a tough time forgetting.
Last Sunday, Shubhankar Sharma became the first Indian golfer to win the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award on the European Tour, putting himself in a club that includes names like Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer, Brooks Koepka, and Jon Rahm.
The 22-year-old from Chandigarh also became only the fourth player on the Tour – after Rahm, Jeunghun Wang and former World No1 Luke Donald – to win twice in his rookie season in the last 20 years.
Exactly around this time last year, Sharma had no clue his life would change the way it did. He was happy to get a few starts on the European Tour and was concentrating mostly on the Asian Tour. Instead, it turned out to be a whirlwind, with multiple journeys across the globe, playing all four majors and WGC events and making a concerted effort to chase his PGA Tour card.
No doubt Sharma will go on to achieve a lot more in his career, but let’s have a look at six tournaments this season that he will have a tough time forgetting.
The incredible week at Joburg Open
Sharma started his 2018 European Tour season with a massive disappointment. He made the journey all the way to Spain for the final stage of the Qualifying School, but missed out after failing to get going in the final two rounds and finished T68, good enough only for a conditional card.
The Joburg Open was his third start of the season after Hong Kong (T10) and Mauritius (T27). Sharma was planning to pull out of the tournament after playing for several consecutive weeks, but decided to push himself for another week on the advice of Arjun Atwal.
Once there, it was just a dream week. Not even a massive thunderstorm on Sunday could halt Sharma’s march to the podium. Powered by a 10-under par 61 in the second round, he triumphed by three shots on Monday in his first visit to South Africa. The 23-under par total remains the lowest winning total on the Tour this season.
The win not only secured him a full membership on the European Tour and kickstarted the incredible season, but also gave him a spot at the 2018 Open Championship in Carnoustie.
The final round at Maybank Championship
If Joburg was the best four rounds he put together, the Maybank Championship victory in February was a result of a stunning final-round charge.
The conditions weren’t easy at Saujana Golf & Country Club when Sharma started his final round four shots behind the leaders. Gusting winds made scoring difficult for the field, but Sharma could have been playing on a different golf course.
He quickly caught up with the leaders after making five birdies on his front nine, and then left them in his wake after picking up five more shots on the back nine. Throughout the round, he never took his foot off the accelerator and closed with birdies on the 17th and 18th holes.
In the end, Sharma won his second European Tour title in the space of just four tournaments by two shots. His 10-under par 62 on Sunday was a whopping four shots better than the next best player on the day.
The week at WGC-Mexico
In the first week of March, Sharma qualified for his first ever World Golf Championship tournament at the WGC-Mexico as the leader of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. And if people thought he’d be intimidated by the enormity of the occasion, that never happened.
Sharma opened with a 65 to take a one-shot lead, and then extended it to two over the quality field with rounds of 66 and 69. The final round did not go as per expectations and a 74 saw him finish on the tied ninth place, but it did help serve notice to the golfing world that he was ready to be a force at the highest level.
Playing at The Masters
Given the qualification criteria of the Masters, it usually is the last of the four major championships that a golfer gets to experience in his career. In Sharma’s case, it was the first major he played, thanks to a dream invitation by Augusta National Golf Club based on his early season performance on the European Tour and his heroics at the WGC-Mexico.
From the moment he entered the club through the Magnolia Lane to the time he went, to the adulation he received from the patrons and practiced at the driving range and followed the leaders on Sunday, it was an unforgettable experience for the young Sharma. The only shame was that he missed the cut by two shots – still a creditable finish given how cruel Augusta National can be to rookies.
Qualifying for the US Open
Sharma missed the cut at The Memorial on the PGA Tour, and then showed up at the Sectionals in Columbus, Ohio, for the grueling 36-hole US Open qualifier.
Having already played the Masters and qualified for the Open Championship – and also certain to make it to the PGA Championship because of his world ranking at that stage – the US Open was one major he was in danger of missing in his first global season.
With rounds of 69 and 68 in a field that comprise mostly of the PGA Tour players, Sharma finished tied fifth and booked his ticket to the Shinnecock Hills.
The battle to make the cut at The Open
Apart from his two wins early in the season, Sharma’s finest moment was the Friday of the Open Championship at the demanding Carnoustie course.
The young Indian showed tons of fortitude with a stunning back nine display in the second round to make his first cut in a major championship, thus ensuring his 22nd birthday the next day, was a very happy one indeed.
Four birdies on the back nine, including one on the famous 18th of Carnoustie, hauled him easily inside the cutline. He finally finished tied 51st at four-over par for his first and only cut in the four majors he played in 2018.
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