SHUBHANKAR SHARMA - When Shubhankar aced the test at one of major golf’s toughest holes

Second shot, par-4 18th hole, Second Round

2018 Open Championship, Carnoustie

The 2018 season turned out to be an insane one for Shubhankar Sharma. Plying his trade on the Asian Tour, two early wins in European Tour co-sanctioned events had pitchforked him firmly into the league of superstars and the biggest reward was the opportunity to play in the majors and World Golf Championship events.

Ask any professional golfer. They yearn to be a part of the majors and WGCs. To be playing them is not just an automatic indicator of their status in world golf, it also satisfies that innate urge to compete against the very best.

Sharma’s heroics, especially in leading the WGC-Mexico Championship after the first three rounds, caught the attention of Augusta National Golf Club, and he received an invite to the Masters that year. His Joburg Open win earned him a place at the Open in Carnoustie and his world ranking made him eligible for the PGA Championship. He made it all four by qualifying for the US Open that year.

Even though the Indian ace has hit a slew of great shots (including an albatross at Jack Nicklaus’ The Memorial last year) in a professional career that started very young, Sharma, quite understandably, chose one at a major championship as his finest till date. Having witnessed it first-hand walking with him that day, I tend to agree with his pick whole-heartedly.

Sharma had agonisingly missed the cut by the narrowest of margins of one shot at the Masters, and never had a chance of making the weekend at the brutal US Open at Shinnecock Hills.

So, when the then 21-year-old reached Carnoustie for the 147th Open, he wanted to desperately experience the weekend atmosphere at a major. And given that his birthday is on July 21, which usually falls during the championship week, the Open would be a good place to start.

“I really wanted to have a good week at Carnoustie. I played the Irish and the Scottish Opens the weeks before the Open and missed cuts in both tournaments. But I knew I was playing well and those were my first experiences of links golf. So, hopefully, I was well prepared,” said Sharma.

Paired alongside 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Bryson DeChambeau, who won four times on the PGA Tour that season, Sharma opened with a two-over par 73. On Friday, three bogeys on the front nine meant he was in deep trouble at five-over, with the cut looking like +3.

Staring down the barrel, Sharma put together a sensational back nine even though Carnoustie was being its brutal self. He birdied the 10, 13th and 14th alongside a bogey on the 12th, to reach the par-4 18th at one-over for the day and three-over par for the tournament.

The 18th at Carnoustie is probably one of the toughest holes in major golf. It’s 499 yards of sheer adventure. Walking barefoot on burning coal is an easier task.

What it did to Jean van de Velde in 1999, and later to Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia in 2007, is now part of golfing folklore. Ironically called ‘Home’, there is nothing comforting at all about this monster.

There’s juicy rough all around, but players feel blessed if they hit an errant drive and find themselves in the thick stuff. Better there than being in the Barry Burn – that python-like rivulet which guards the landing area on the left and right, then bisects the fairway and forms a formidable force to the left all the way to the putting surface, where it takes another sweeping turn and becomes a terrifying final hurdle protecting the front of the green. Right is no better with deep fairway bunkers. Oh! And there is also out of bounds left and around the green!!

If there is one hole where a par truly feels like a birdie, it is at the 18th at Carnoustie. And that was Sharma’s final challenge. A bogey would certainly result it a missed cut at +4, a par might just help him sneak into his first major weekend and make his 22nd birthday that much sweeter.

The hole was playing downwind on Friday, but the tee shot did not go exactly as per plans. You’ve got to hit it left there, but it looked way left from the tee. Luckily, it did not get into the Burn and stayed in the left rough, making his second shot extremely tricky. The pressure was obviously accentuated by situation that Sharma faced as he HAD to make a par.

That’s when Sharma hit his hero shot. Taking into account the effects of a flier, he picked up his nine-iron and muscled out a beauty – the ball pitching on the front edge of the green and rolling to the right tier about eight feet from the pin.

“I had a very bad lie in the rough and my only thought was to try and start the ball on line. There was hardly any margin of error because of the OB left and Barry Burn short of the green. It was a pretty daunting shot, but I hit a good one. It came out with a slight draw, which was what I wanted,” remembers Sharma.

“More importantly, I made that putt for birdie to make the cut by one shot. My first cut at a major…it definitely was an early birthday present for me.”

Another shot, one that actually made the trip to Carnoustie possible, also remains a favourite of his. It came on the 16th hole on Monday of the Joburg Open at Randpark GC.

Sharma was leading by four shots with seven holes remaining when play was suspended on Sunday. By that time, he had played 48 consecutive holes without dropping a shot. If the doubters thought he’d fold up under the pressure when play resumed, it was not to be.

But 16th was going to be crucial after he pulled his tee shot into deep trouble.

“It was the second shot on the 16th. It is a par-4 with water short of the green. I pulled my tee shot and ended up in the rough about 20 yards short of a tree,” Sharma recollects.

“Now I was faced with a 155-yard shot and had to cut the ball after starting it under the hanging limb of the tree if I were to go for the green. The other option was to chip out. I went for the hero shot and landed the ball safely on the green and made two putts for a four. That was a very important shot to maintain the momentum.”

By Joy Chakravarty (@TheJoyofGolf)

Picture: Asian Tour

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