BY DOUG FERGUSON
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Each month brings a bigger stage and a new level of pedigree for Shubhankar Sharma.
He arrived in Mexico City for his first World Golf Championship at No. 75 in the world, making Sharma, at age 21, the highest-ranked player from India.
That’s not what made him eligible to compete against Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and the world’s best players for a $10 million prize fund. Sharma is the only two-time winner on the European Tour this season. He is leading the Race to Dubai.
And he hopes he is just getting started.
“I don’t want to dwell on the past,” Sharma said. “I still have so many things to do to get to the PGA Tour, and that’s what I want to do.”
And to think Sharma might never have seen a golf course except for the most unusual coincidence.
Sharma and Anirban Lahiri — the player he replaced as India’s No. 1 — are both Army brats. Retired Col. Mohan Sharma was stationed at the same post as Lahiri’s father, a gynecologist, when Sharma’s younger sister was born.
“He was the doctor for my wife, and my wife was going through a tough time with blood pressure,” Mohan Sharma said. “He’s very kind and a fine doctor. His son was a top junior at that time. My son was turning 7. And he said to me, ‘This is a great game. You’ll find that if you take him to golf.'”
The Army colonel and his son went to the golf course together for the first time.
“No one in our family played golf,” Shubhankar Sharma said. “He 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 didn’t hit it very high, but he was straight. And he loved it. There was one course in Chandigarh, the northern city where India’s first top player, Jeev Milkha Singh, was raised. Sharma was like many Indian kids. He played cricket after school. He played soccer.
“But golf was different,” he said. “That’s what appealed to me. When I was 12 or 13, I knew I was going to be a professional golfer.”
Mohan retired from the Army to look after his son, who turned pro when he was 16. Turning pro so early kept him from wearing his country’s colors at the World Amateur Team Championship and other amateur competitions. But it made him determined to succeed.
“I always wanted to set the bar high,” he said. “I thought setting the bar high helped me push myself. And it’s the only thing that pushes me every day.”
Singh saw the potential when he watched Sharma on the practice range at home. He was not surprised that Sharma has reached a world stage like the Mexico Championship, which starts Thursday at Chapultepec Golf Club.
“I am proud of the boy the way he has handled himself,” Singh said Tuesday evening from India. “That’s the most important thing when you see a young kid, and the conduct of this kid is amazing. I think he’s got everything. He’s humble. He knows you have to maintain your game and have the drive to keep it going. He’s got a very good swing. But he’s got a very strong mind. He’s going to go far.”
Sharma is not long and powerful off the tee, like so many young players. But he can score.
Two years ago, Sharma had two tournaments left to earn enough money for a full card on the Asian Tour. In the final round of the Manila Masters, he shot 62 to tie for fourth and lock up his card. At the end of his first full season, he shot 61 in the second round of the Joburg Open and went on to win. That was co-sanctioned with the European Tour, giving Sharma membership on two tours.
And then last month in Kuala Lumpur, Sharma again closed with a 62 to win the Malaysian Open and shoot to the top of Europe’s money list.
“He’s got such a great temperament,” Lahiri said. “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. He’s not scared to make birdies in bunches.”
They have a family connection through the birth of Sharma’s sister, and Lahiri sees another parallel. Success in golf can come quickly. Three years ago, Lahiri won the Malaysian Open and the Hero Indian Open — both European Tour events — in a span of three weeks and rose to No. 34 in the world. Just like that, he was in World Golf Championships and heading to Augusta National for the Masters.
Later that year, he became the first Indian to play in the Presidents Cup.
“He’s a really good kid. He comes from a humble background,” Lahiri said. “He’s kind of like myself — Army brats. We didn’t have all the luxurious equipment or facilities. We’re grinders.”
Sharma already has a clear vision of where he wants to be, thanks to a road trip like none other in 2015.
On the range with him in Mexico was Gurbaaz Mann, who played sparingly at Arizona State as a walk-on and worked on golf equipment in Ohio before he needed to return home to India after his father died. He now is promoting the Indo-American PGA to help more Indian kids make it to America. Mann is caddying for him this week.
Sharma was among 10 players who flew to New York in the summer of 2015. They rented a 15-seat van, stacked the clubs in the back and off they went. Mann used social media to arrange pro-ams to raise money for the trip, and they had enough left over to send one of the players to Q-school in America.
They traveled south to Houston, northwest to Seattle, down the coast to San Francisco, over to Iowa, up to Cleveland. The trip covered some 12,500 miles over 45 days. If nothing else, Mann says it was a chance to see America and the ultimate destination for an aspiring golfer.
“There must be Americans who haven’t done what we have,” Sharma said with a laugh.
And now he’s in Mexico City, hopeful of a big week that could lead to greater moments. The top 64 in the world qualify for the Dell Match Play in three weeks. He is trying to get into the top 50 over the next month to qualify for the Masters.
“Surely, this is the biggest event I’ve ever played,” he said. “There will be a lot of learning.”
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