Golf: Shubhankar hopes to end India's drought - Hindustan Times

Golf: Shubhankar hopes to end India's drought

Mar 27, 2024 10:36 PM IST

The national Open has had only two Indian winners in last 15 years, an anomaly Shubhankar is hoping to correct this weekend

Shubhankar Sharma remembers the March afternoon of 2018 when he fell six spots on the final day to relinquish his overnight lead and ended the Hero Indian Open tied seventh with Stephen Gallacher. As the 27-year-old returns for another iteration of what he calls the fifth major, the memories -- and lessons learned -- are hard to subside.

Shubhankar Sharma(Getty Images)
Shubhankar Sharma(Getty Images)

"I remember it very well, even though that was a long time ago," he said on Wednesday. Back then, Sharma entered the DLF Golf and Country Club on the back of a good week in Mexico where he had finished tied-ninth at the WGC Championships. This year, a tied-seventh in Singapore in the run up to the Indian Open has put him in the right mindspace. The parallels are uncanny, giving Sharma hope, belief, and an opportunity to reflect.

Six years is a long time in sport, and it has seen him grow from a promising talent to the well-travelled golfer who has confidently and consistently rubbed shoulders with the best. Into his seventh season on the DP World Tour -- formerly European Tour -- Sharma finds himself at the critical intersection of experience and youth. There is a nuanced understanding of his game and body, his tee shots have become longer and sharper, his training is more regimented, and his playlist has gone from Tupac Shakur to '80s rock.

There are, however, a few constants. His go-to hit, for instance, remains Dire Straits' 'Where do you think you are going?' -- a song that sounds more like an existential question. His close circle still is the same, as is the feeling he calls home each time he enters the Gurugram course.

"This is my second home. I spent my teenage years here and all my evenings were spent playing putting matches till the lights went out. I used to live five minutes down the road. I know Gurgaon like the back of my hand and I've seen this golf course literally from its inception," he said.

"Mine has been a long journey, but the people that I draw energy from -- my parents and people like Anirban Lahiri -- have remained the same. I have been a pro for over a decade now and over the years I've just learned more about myself. Every year I've become a better player and a better person."

While local knowledge will certainly help, it will all boil down to execution. Played on one of the most challenging and intimidating courses in the country, Indian Open has not had an Indian winner since 2017. Last 15 years have seen only two Indian winners -- Anirban Lahiri (2015) and SSP Chawrasia (2016, 2017) while no Indian finished in top 10 last year.

Sharma insisted the course is not easy to tame. The roughs have become a lot thicker over the years and the overgrowth of trees makes the fairway look a lot narrower. The first challenge will be to hit the fairway, but the importance of approach shots can't be undermined either.

"It is very tricky off the tee. Finding the fairways is very important here. Every aspect of your game -- chipping, putting, hitting -- will be tested here. Visually, it looks quite intimidating with all the grass and bushes around. The surface is not as hard as it was in 2017 which means you might have to hit slightly longer," Sharma, who finished tied-13 here in 2023, explained.

"It is a test of being in the present. You can't really think about what you're going to do on the sixth hole when you haven't even reached the fourth. Just look at the shot you want to hit, look at the landing area and try to bring out your best swing. Pick your places where you can make birdies. Every pin is tough here. Going for the pin here is not the best tactic. I can say I have the advantage of local knowledge but translating that into execution is the key."

The field will also have the likes of Gaganjeet Bhullar and Lahiri in action while the next generation of India's male golfers -- Yuvraj Sandhu, Manu Gandas, Veer Ahlawat -- will also tee up. "It is one of the strongest Indian fields ever assembled at the Indian Open. While we have not had an Indian winner for some time, I think this weekend, we will surely have a few in contention. I certainly want to be one of those," Sharma said.

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