World No. 66 Shubhankar Sharma, the highest-ranked player in the 144-man field, will be spearheading the Indian charge when the Hero Indian Open tees off at the challenging DLF Golf & Country Club in Gurgaon on Thursday.
Shubhankar got a massive boost to his confidence just a day before his National Open, as he received an invitation to play in the Masters Tournament, the year’s first Major.
The 21-year-old came off a top-10 finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship and flew halfway across the world to compete in the US$ 1.75 million Asian Tour and European Tour co-sanctioned tournament.
Sharma was slightly disappointed with himself after his finish in Mexico, having led the tournament after 54 holes. However, the setback was all forgotten upon the call from Buzzy Johnson, Senior Director of the Masters Tournament. He is now focused on doing well on his home course.
“I’m really happy with what has happened to me so far. Obviously, the Asian Tour played a big role, as the Tour has given me the opportunity to compete and helped me develop my game to my current level… I was quite tough on myself throughout the flight back to India, as I didn’t finish the tournament the way I wanted, but as soon as I got the call, all the pain got washed away. I’m really happy to be able to play in the Masters Tournament. It’s every golfer’s dream to play in the Masters, and I’m no exception,” Sharma told reporters.
“For a start, I wasn’t even sure if I was even going to play in the Joburg Open. Even after my win, I was just trying to play as much as I can. I wanted to show everyone that my win there wasn’t a fluke, then I managed to win the Maybank Championship, which is obviously good.
“I started with PGTI and I was with the Asian Tour for the past three years. The progression has been great. It is tough to move out of India and compete internationally, as the conditions are different and you are away from your loved ones. It took me a few years. It was only in 2016 when I got my full Asian Tour card. I played pretty well last year and I’m very happy to cap off the year with a win. I’m very thankful to have the chance to play on the Asian Tour.
“The Indian Open is very close to my heart. I witnessed every Indian Open before I turned professional. It has always been a dream for me if I can win it. I’m really looking forward to it. The field is great and the course is well maintained… The toughest competition here at the Hero Indian Open is the golf course. It’s about managing yourself out there. Not a lot of players will finish under par this week. The course is playing tougher compared to last year and it’s going to be a test of patience. A lot of great players are playing this week. So, may the best golfer win!”
Defending champion S.S.P. Chawrasia will be adopting the same strategy that led to him winning last year’s tournament by seven shots. The affable 39-year-old did not give anything away, and simply credited his win in 2017 to playing good golf.
Chawrasia has a brilliant record at his National Open, having won in 2015 and 2016 and finishing in second place in 2013 and 2014.
“I’ve already won twice and I’m trying my best to win for the third consecutive time. I’m comfortable with the conditions in my country, which may explain why I’ve been playing well in the tournaments here. All the players on Tour were saying, if the tournament is held in India, I’ll probably win it. They asked me what my secret is, but I told them that it is no secret; I simply play good golf!,” Chawrasia said after playing a practice round.
“I’ve last lost four times narrowly at the Indian Open, perhaps, that I have won twice just to balance things out. I won last year, so obviously that strategy worked. So, I’ll bring the same strategy to this year’s tournament… I’ve made recently some changes to my game to help me stay even more consistent. So, let’s see how it goes.”
Compatriot Anirban Lahiri will be looking forward to play in front of his home fans. The 2015 Hero Indian Open champion and Asian Tour Order of Merit winner will be adopting a calm and patient approach to the tournament, given the challenging conditions and set up of the golf course.
“This tournament brings back great memories. In 2009, the second year of the Asian Tour, I shot 64 on Sunday to finish third, which secured my card for the following year. The rest, as they say, is history. The course is in great condition. It is better compared to last year, in general. The changes in the back nine may pose a challenge, especially if the wind picks up. The challenge out there will probably be the greens. If you land your ball in the wrong position, you will probably suffer. But it’s going to be the same for everyone. So, I’ll just aim to put the ball in play and land on the right positions on the greens,” Lahiri said.
“The Asian Tour is home to me. Whenever I come back to Asia and play in tournaments like the Hero Indian Open, I see so many familiar faces. It’s definitely the fun Tour to play in the world, and I’ve played all over the world. I spent seven years here, worked my way up from the bottom, had to play in the Asian Qualifying School twice. In 2010, I had to play well in Cambodia to keep my playing card. I’ve really enjoyed here and I’ve learned a lot from the Asian Tour. The exposure has helped me be more appreciative when I have gone out west. The attitude I’ve developed while playing on the Asian Tour has also certainly helped me on the world stage.”
The Hero Indian Open 2018 will have an elite field that comprises of five Asian Tour Order of Merit winners and more than 40 Asian Tour champions.
Edition: 54th (started in 1964)
Prize money: US$ 1.75 million
Winner’s purse: US$ 291,660
Players in the Top-100: Shubhankar Sharma (66), Joost Luiten (67); Julian Suri (70), Emiliano Grillo (76), Anirban Lahiri (80), Chris Wood (90)
Past champions in fray: SSP Chawrasia (2017, 2016), Anirban Lahiri (2015), SIddikur Rahman (2013), David Gleeson (2011), Liang Wen-chong (2008), Jyoti Randhawa (2007, 2006, 2000), Thongchai Jaidee (2001), Arjun Atwal (1999)
(Read ‘Hero Indian Open 2018’ preview in the March issue of Golf Digest India. Download here.)