I am addicted to competition: Shubhankar Sharma
For Shubhankar Sharma, the decision to take the leap and join the European Tour, where he is currently in action in Hertfordshire, was born out of cabin fever.
“It was getting tough staying at home,” Sharma , the only Indian golfer in the United Kingdom’s six-week swing, said. It’s not hard to identify with that sentiment, but Sharma gets that many golfers see things differently in the time of Covid-19. Lee Westwood and John Daly withdrew from this week’s PGA Championships in California. “It’s not fully safe so I hardly blame them. Those in the European Tour can use the time to get better for next year,” he said, referring to players’ cards being extended to 2021.
In July, Andrew Johnston pulled out after nine holes at the British Masters, with which the European Tour resumed, because he found a bio-secure bubble constricting. On Wednesday, at the Tour’s English Championship, where Sharma and world No. 39 Westwood are playing, John Catlin and his caddie Nathan Mulrooney were withdrawn for breaking the bubble.
“The duo visited a local restaurant on Tuesday outside the tournament bubble,” said a message on the website of the Euro 1 million tournament.
For Sharma, the call of the greens was stronger than the voice of caution.
“I had had enough of working out at home, watching old videos of my game and occasionally chipping in the front garden. So, it was a pretty easy decision,” he said. “Dad was initially apprehensive but my family was supportive of the decision. If you take precautions, keep your immunity high and eat right, you should be okay.
“I just wanted to compete. I am addicted to competition. I learn more when I compete,” Sharma said. The 24-year-old is one of India’s brightest young talents in the game, finishing tied ninth at the World Golf Championship in 2018 and becoming the youngest from the country to win on the men’s European Tour (2017 Joburg Open).
Getting back on the tour involved careful planning for Sharma, not the least of which was bagging a flight ticket from Delhi to London. At the moment, the government only allows a very restricted number of so-called “air-bubble flights” to and from the US, UK, France, Germany and the UAE.
“Two weeks prior to the Hero Open (July 30-August 2) in Birmingham, I decided I would play. The flight was full. I was lucky to get a business class ticket so travel was comfortable. Once on board, I took off my face shield but wore my mask till I lay on the bed when I pulled up my blanket,” Sharma said.
“Needed almost a space suit to reach Birmingham, guys,” he tweeted on July 28 with a picture of him wearing a face shield and a mask.
Sharma missed the cut in Birmingham and it was the sixth successive tournament this season that he had to exiton Day 2. “I felt good, it was just rust,” he said of his first competition since March. “I hit four birdies in the last seven holes on the second day,” he said.
From Birmingham, Sharma and Gurbaaz Mann, the former pro who is now his caddie, drove to Hertfordshire for the English Championship where he opened with a par-71 first round. They hired a self-driven car on landing in Heathrow. That car will almost be a second home for the next five weeks as the duo travel the Tour, including to back-to-back tournaments in Wales next week.
“Roads are mostly empty so getting around is easy,” he said.
Though the start to his season was frustrating, Sharma said he used the nearly four-month long enforced break to his advantage. “I was working on few technical things, my swing being one of them, and it took time to settle down. The lockdown was good that way because it helped me work on them more.”
Being confined to his home in Chandigarh also led to a change in perspective.
“I am just happy to be playing now and that for a player is a great place to be,” he said. “It was something I had almost taken for granted. Now it feels superb just going into a tournament and getting those competitive juices flowing.”
Sharma also supported tennis star Andy Murray’s recent pitch for a mixed gender Ryder Cup. “I think sports misses a bit of a trick with this stuff,” said Murray, the winner of three Grand Slams, recently. “Well, why not? There was a mixed event in Sweden which got cancelled due to the pandemic but there can be many more fun tournaments that can make the sport better,” Sharma said.
From spending his last two birthdays at the Open Championships--the grandstand sang Happy Birthday in Northern Ireland as he birdied on the 18th--Sharma turned 24 on July 21 at home. This year, the Open was cancelled in the wake of Covid-19.
“A lot has changed in the world since my 23rd birthday,” Sharma said. Among them: providing a daily health bulletin at tournaments.
“Now you are tested every Monday before getting into the tournament bubble. You get an email in three hours and if you test negative, you get the accreditation which gives you access to the players’ lounge. It’s that, the course, and your room in the hotel which is part of the course. For company, I have Baaz (Mann) and lot of EDM (electronic dance music).”