As the azaleas and dogwood prepare to bloom, signaling the arrival of spring and the year’s first major, the Masters Tournament, Asia’s young and aspiring golf stars have blossomed in near perfect sync to deliver golfing bliss to the continent’s legion of fans.
Among the emerging crop of regional performers, young Indian Shubhankar Sharma has undoubtedly been the name on everybody’s lips following his double victory in South Africa and Malaysia, including a mesmerizing debut at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship in early-March where he held the 36-hole and 54-hole lead before finishing tied ninth to announce his arrival on the big stage.
Throw in the stellar finishes by Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who produced top-5 outings in Mexico and last week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Asian golf is primed to take its place on centre stage very, very soon.
At 21, Sharma is proving to be the real deal. He can consistently hit it straight with every club in his bag, he putts the ball beautifully and owns a calm temperament thanks largely to meditation taught by his mother since he was child. In addition, Sharma is humble and has the personality that every parent would be proud of.
Jeev Milkha Singh, one of India’s greatest players, has labelled his young countryman as the “complete package”, while Arjun Atwal, the only Indian to win on the PGA Tour to date, calls Sharma a young man with an “older soul,” which is evident through his maturity on and off the golf course. Anirban Lahiri, a two-time Presidents Cup International team member, has predicted it would only be a matter of time before Sharma joins him on the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour.
An army brat where his father, Colonel Mohan Sharma, served in the Indian armed forces and was coaxed by Lahiri’s father to teach his son the game, Shubhankar has been a great benefactor of the Asian Tour, the region’s governing body for the professional game.
Through playing opportunities across the region, the first sighting of Sharma as a top prospect came at the 2016 Resorts World Manila Masters where he fired a final round 62 to finish equal fourth, which helped seal his card in 2017.
Sharma then registered four top 10s and several weeks after missing out on his European Tour card at Qualifying School late last year, the young Indian pulled off a career-changing victory at the Joburg Open in South Africa in December, highlighted by a stunning 61 in second round.
Later in February Sharma was at it again, this time producing some final-round fireworks at the Maybank Championship in Malaysia where he closed with a scintillating 62 to win by two strokes, sealing his second Asian Tour and European Tour sanctioned titles. From being ranked a lowly 521st last November, Sharma has shot up to 68th in the latest world rankings and seized the lead on both the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and Asian Tour’s Habitat for Humanity standings.
His early season success rewarded Sharma with a maiden World Golf Championships appearance in Mexico and competing against a backdrop of global stars, which included the world’s top 5 golfers and 45 players from the top 50, the Indian brilliantly rose to the occasion and captivated fans and media alike with his wonderful all around game and charming personality.
Cards of 65 and 66 pushed him into the halfway lead and a third round 69 kept him two ahead of a star-studded pack. It earned him a final day grouping with World Golf Hall of Famer, Phil Mickelson, who eventually won the tournament for his 43rd PGA Tour title after a pulsating final day shootout.
Despite a final round 74, Sharma stood very tall and earned praises from Mickelson, who, funnily enough, had brushed the young Indian aside on the previous day thinking that Sharma was media.
“I saw how well he struck the golf ball. He hit a beautiful tee shot on 1, you can tell he can really play. I saw some of the putts, some of the highlights with the putter. I know he’s a very talented player, and I believe he’s leading the Order of Merit on the European Tour, so I know what a great player Mr. Sharma is. I probably shouldn’t say that, he’s 26 years younger than me!,” Mickelson said.
Sharma’s disappointment was allayed with a special invitation to play in the Masters Tournament the very next day. He tweeted: “I am deeply honored to be found worthy of invitation by the Masters Committee. It’s a dream come true. My gratitude.”
With equal excitement and bravado, Masters-bound Kiradech, 28, has also produced some great golf in recent weeks that has left him on the brink of earning a PGA Tour card. A former Asian Tour No. 1, Kiradech needs 18 more FedExCup points to attain special temporary membership, which will allow him unlimited sponsors’ exemptions for the remainder of the season. Then he will need to be within the top 125 of the FedExCup regular season standings to become the first Thai to hold a PGA Tour card.
“It’s always my dream to play on the PGA Tour. I’ve been playing some great golf over the last few months, and I just need to keep doing the same,” said Kiradech, a four-time European Tour winner and now ranked a career-high 29th in the world.
Whatever happens come Masters Tournament weeks, Sharma’s continued rise in the game, Kiradech’s push for PGA Tour playing status, and the success shown by Haotong Li of China and Japan’s World No. 6 Hideki Matsuyama, the game in Asia is surely poised to attain new heights.
Sharma, Kiradech and co. will certainly cherish the drive along Magnolia Lane during the Masters, and the road to stardom and the PGA Tour could just be around the next turn. This could truly be a spring to remember for Asian golf.
Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications, on the PGA Tour and is based in TPC Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.