Soul to sole: Shubhankar Sharma reveals revival secret
The legendary Bobby Jones once said golf was a sport played on a five-and-a-half-inch course — the space between your ears. Ask Shubhankar Sharma, and he will tell you that not just inches, but even millimeters matter. He found it out the hard way, as his form spiraled downwards in the last eight months of 2018.
Before hitting the rough patch, Sharma, then 21, was walking tall in the world of golf. He won the Joburg Open late in 2017, captured the Maybank Malaysian Open in February last year with a stunning last-round charge, and a month later, made a stormy World Golf Championship debut in Mexico, where he led a field full of the world’s best golfers into the final day.
That burst of results led to a dream invitation from Augusta National Golf Club for the 2018 Masters and made him the first Indian golfer to be signed by Nike. Then, something stopped clicking. The laser-like precision of his irons, the hallmark of his game, began to inexplicably disintegrate . From a career-high world ranking of 64 in March 2018, Sharma slipped to 330 by this September. For nearly six months, Sharma and his team scrambled to try and find a reason for his performances taking a dramatic downward swing.
Then in October, after a long process of elimination, Sharma and his long-time coach Jesse Grewal zeroed in on the reason.
Sharma had switched to his new sponsor Nike’s shoes during the Masters and was enjoying the comfort. But the way those shoes were built was not a perfect fit to his game. “Nike made some great shoes for me. They are extremely comfortable, but they had flattish soles. I’ve grown up playing with shoes that have slightly raised heels and lower toes,” said Sharma, who is playing the Turkish Airlines Open in Belek, Antalya, this week.
A subtle, minute difference, but it had an outsized impact.
“I could not feel the same height in my heels, and without realising it, I started to compensate for the difference with slight changes in my swing,” Sharma said. “I started getting stuck on the downswing, and I started staying more on the heels -- that is something that you don’t want to do with your swing. You want to feel the weight on your toes.”
At the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November last year, the first tournament he played after realising the problem, Sharma tried to insert an old insole into his shoes to raise the heel a bit. But it led to blisters, which burst and bled even as he was in the middle of his round.
“In Shubhankar’s case, he was compensating for that miniscule difference in the way his club head lay on the ground when playing with the new shoes, compared to the many years he played with his heels raised,” Sharma’s coach Grewal said.
Throughout this period, Nike plied Sharma with different shoes to help him solve his problem. Finally, Sharma got special insoles, which slope from heel to toe, made to his specifications.
“It’s just a difference of a few millimeters, but it’s changed the way I play my golf now,” Sharma said. “That’s how golf is. Even a slight variation in the loft of your clubs can make a huge difference in how you are hitting the ball.”
Golfers often face issues while switching clubs, but shoes making such a dramatic impact is a rarity. “Some players do get affected by it but certainly not to this extent. What contributed more to the problem is my own physical structure,” Sharma said. “I have longer arms, but shorter legs. It is better for me to be slightly higher from the ground.”
Once the mystery of the shoe was solved, Sharma and Grewal turned their focus back to his game. “It took almost a couple of months for us to get his game back on track because there were a few small mistakes that had crept into his game and become a habit,” said Grewal. “Compensation can happen when you are injured and the body involuntary tries to protect that part, or when there is a change in equipment specifications.”
Karan Bindra, head professional at DLF Golf & Country Club, said Sharma’s team were fortunate enough to diagnose the problem. “The intricacies of a golfer playing at Shubhankar’s level are immense. We are lucky to have the technology and qualified people to look into every aspect of their game. This is a very rare issue for a player to face,” he said.
Sharma feels that he is found his groove again; he can already see the difference. At the Italian Open in October, he finished tied seventh, his first top 10 finish this year. Since the Italian Open, Sharma has made 55 birdies in three tournaments, the second best on the European Tour after Joachim B Hansen (56).
“From a coach’s point of view, I think his swing is back to a point where he is ready to win again,” Grewal said. “We are now working hard on his short game because there have been a few sloppy mistakes in the past few weeks that have resulted in ‘stupid’ bogeys which were complete momentum breakers in the middle of a good birdie run.”
Sharma heads into the Turkish Airlines Open this week ranked 81st in the Race to Dubai, which means he needs two good weeks to qualify for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, where only the top-50 players make it to the field.
“I am quite pleased with how I am playing and there is no reason why I should not be able to post good results,” Sharma said. “I have a new driver which is helping me find more fairways and the iron play seems to be back in the groove. All I need to do now is limit the odd mistakes and anything can happen after that.”