Iron Man: A Wknd interview with golfer Shubhankar Sharma
He just made it to the Top 10 in the Open, a heady comeback after early wins, then years in the wilderness. He's learnt to ease up on the intensity, Sharma says
Shubhankar Sharma’s Spotify playlist shows just how much things have changed for the 27-year-old golfer.
The man who once went up to the podium after winning a tournament and thanked rapper Tupac Shakur for his success (thus winning the bet with a friend who challenged him to do so), is now into ’60s and ’70s rock. The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes is his current favourite, and AC/DC’s raw energy propels him through countless hours of practice.
A changed mindset helped him negotiate what was truly a Highway to Hell: the final round of this year’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
In an unforgettable performance, Sharma was the only player in the elite field who managed to come home unscathed as an already treacherous course developed a new set of fangs when combined with unrelenting rain and unpredictable winds. There were sub-par rounds, but Sharma was the only player ringing Hells Bells that day, finishing without a bogey.
Sharma shot a sublime one-under par 71 and finished tied-eighth, making history for Indian golf with only the third Top-10 performance by the country in majors, and India’s best result in the 151 editions of the oldest annual sporting event in the world.
“I would rank that 71 right up there in my all-time best rounds. I have had a few 10-unders to win tournaments, but considering it is the British Open, considering everything that was happening in the build-up to the event and considering how the elements were in play that Sunday, I would rank it right up there,” Sharma says.
His father, 56-year-old Colonel (Retd) Mohan Lal Sharma, “always tells me ‘You have to avoid bogeys’,” he adds. “My mindset has always been that I need to make more birdies. That’s how I play…I just try and find more flags. I still stand by that philosophy, but there are some tournaments and some rounds where not making a bogey is worth its weight in gold. That last round in Liverpool was exactly that. As good as that round was, it also left me with a feeling that I can do even better. There are more tournaments, better results and more consistency to chase. I’m already looking forward to that.”
That final round captures Sharma’s metamorphosis as a golfer. His early successes, in Johannesburg and Malaysia between December 2017 and February 2018, featured rounds of 61 and 62. From being an intrepid flag-hunter who was never fazed by the severity of the pin and attacked every hole, he has learned to adopt the crane style: stand on one foot for hours, and pounce when the opportunity arises.
Patience is the mantra he swears by now. For someone who courted international acclaim early in his career, followed by a protracted and frustrating time in the wilderness, it has taken effort to get to this zen frame of mind.
“Patience is very, very important, not just in the game but in every walk of life. Golf does a great job of making you understand what it really is,” says Sharma, who is now ranked 169th in the world. “There are so many times when I feel like I’m very close to playing well, but I am unable put together the scores. I guess patience is also the reason I’m not walking on cloud nine right now, after a good outing at the British Open. I feel I was able to do everything I needed to do that week. But I must let that go now because I know I can do more.”
Sharma, who started playing at the age of six, is known for his intensity on the course. He has learnt to use breathing techniques to calm his nerves on the tee, particularly after a bad shot.
“I do not have a single technique or way to meditate that I can point to. Spirituality and meditation have been a big part of our family even before I started playing,” he says. “Sitting in the morning for a puja was part of my childhood. I feel those small things created good energy in the house. I gained a lot from that.”
His mother Neena Sharma, 54, a homemaker, has had a big role to play. “With my father, the discussions are always about golf and technique. With mom, we always talk on how to keep yourself centred, not just in the game, but in life.”
This centredness helped him through the pandemic, with its months away from home, living and playing within a bubble. It has helped him through the vagaries of the game. This year, for instance, he had a Top-10 finish in Abu Dhabi early in the season, then missed nine cuts from January to July.
“I’d be lying if I said I do not feel frustrated when I’m not playing well. Sometimes, it has taken me a week or two to get back into a positive thought process. But I’m always searching for the right mindset. If there’s something off, it is not with the game. Mostly, it has something to do with the mind, or with the body. My bigger point being, when I have tough times, I’m always searching for missing pieces in the puzzle and trying to put them together. And every time I see a piece falling into place, I feel happy that I’m close.”
When he got his first opportunity to play on the European Tour, in 2018, “I was like a kid in a candy store. I did not know what to expect, but I was very excited,” he says. “I did not know much about the golf courses, and my head hurt trying to figure out how to make the cut. I am very happy that I’ve grown as a player and I can now stand with the best at the highest level feeling I can compete with them if I’m playing my best. Getting over the line and getting another win is a matter of time. Hopefully it will happen soon, but I can’t force it. I know what I need to do – practice, and be patient.”