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Golf rewind 2017: Future looks bright as youngsters lead the charge

Shubhankar Sharma became the youngest Indian winner on the European Tour at 21 this year and with golf at the grassroots alive and kicking along, it is a win-win situation for the sport.

other sports Updated: Dec 28, 2017 10:06 IST
Robin Bose
Anirban Lahiri, the highest ranked Indian golfer at No 66, made an impact on the PGA Tour in 2017.
Anirban Lahiri, the highest ranked Indian golfer at No 66, made an impact on the PGA Tour in 2017. (USA Today Sports)

As the season winds down, Indian golf finds itself in a happy space. The health of any sport can be gauged from its state at the grassroots, and some hard facts show there is reason for optimism. The order of merit of the Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI), the launch pad to global tours, wears a young look. Among the top 10, six players are less than 30. Particularly heartening is that Udayan Mane and Honey Baisoya, Nos 2 and 4, are between 21-26 years, and with earnings that would leave anyone in that age bracket immensely proud.

It was at the PGTI, Anirban Lahiri and Gaganjeet Bhullar prepared themselves before charting their course. At 29, Gaganjeet is the youngest to bag eight titles on the Asian Tour after the triumph at the Macao Open in October. Anirban, the highest ranked Indian at No 66, has made an impact on the PGA Tour, coming close to a breakthrough win on golf’s biggest stage quite a few times. Stringing their wins at home, the two have moved on, paving the path for others to follow. Shubhankar Sharma is one to have taken the cue. At 21, he became the youngest Indian winner on the European Tour, and soon after his amazing run at the Joburg Open, stated “how a small thing from a great player” inspired him.

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Shubhankar was 11 when he met Ernie Els during a golf clinic at the Delhi Golf Club. Watching his iron-play, Els autographed his business card and handed it with the words, “When you grow up, I’ll be your agent.” Despite the plethora of benefits that accompanied his breakthrough win, including a spot at the Open Championship next year, that piece of giveaway from Els, now framed, will always remain special. Shubhankar joins SSP Chawrasia as the other Indian to enjoy full playing rights on the European Tour.

The phases earlier on when SSP lost his card in Europe whetted the appetite to do well in that part of the world, and pursuing that objective, he won the Hero Indian Open for the second year running. It was at home though, and the box will be ticked after a win in Europe. Like Shubhankar, Shiv Kapur zoomed up the charts early but though he stayed on the radar, a second win on the Asian Tour eluded him. After 2005, he never got far enough.

Shiv Kapur of India tees off during round two of the Hong Kong Open at the Hong Kong Golf Club. (AFP)

The wait of over 11 years had begun to cast doubts, and after missing cut in two events in the early part of the season, Shiv contemplated putting away his clubs. He arrived for the Yeangder Heritage with no expectations and was surprised where he ended up. Another monkey was off the back when he won the Panasonic Open at his home course.

Spoken of in the same breath as Anirban and Gaganjeet at one time, it appeared Ajeetesh Sandhu did not have it in him to cross the threshold. Given his talent, boundaries had been drawn early on, and when results did not match up, there was dismay. But as they say in golf, a week is all it takes to turn it around, and it was the Yeangder TPC that validated the family’s belief to look ahead. That his outlook had changed was for all to see as he followed it up with another win in Japan and two runners-up finishes on the Asian Tour.

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Pushing the boundaries is what leads to a triumph, and while Anirban came close to posting his first win on the PGA Tour this season, the realisation that he’s got better is crucial. The 2018 season is still young but he has already notched up two top 10s. After the disappointment of the 2015 Presidents Cup, getting into the International team this year as a captain’s pick was testimony to his growing stature. There were mixed reactions when Nick Price named him as a captain’s pick. “Here was the captain calling up and saying I was a unanimous choice...It was a huge validation,” he said.

So was the victory with Si Woo-Kim over Kevin Chappell and Charley Hoffman in four-ball for the Internationals sole point on the penultimate day.

Anirban’s firmest answer to his critics, especially in the US who had questioned his inclusion, was when he halved the match with Kevin Kisner on the final hole.

That Sunday singles should have been Anirban’s, but such is sport.