In this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, Shubhankar Sharma reflects on his 2017 Joburg Open victory, the influence of his family, and the biggest lessons he’s learnt on Tour
The last time I was in Joburg was life-changing. That was my first time in South Africa, my tenth event on the European Tour, and it was really where it all started for me. To win was very unexpected, but it opened so many doors. It all started here in Joburg, and it feels great to be back, and a little surreal. I remember every hole and every shot that I hit that week, and returning as the defending champion feels like I’ve now come full circle.
The story behind that tournament in 2017 was that I wasn’t actually going to come and play. There was a tournament the week before in Mauritius and I’d had a long season on the Asian Tour, but at the last minute I decided it wasn’t too far away so I might as well come. I didn’t even have my caddie, I had a local guy called Erik, and I didn’t even have proper practice rounds because we were playing two courses. But it was just one of those weeks that everything fell into place, and I played phenomenal. I didn’t make a bogey the last three days, every time I got into trouble I made par, and I took every opportunity for birdie.
I think the hardest thing for me that week was keeping focused off the course, because play got suspended after eight holes on Sunday and we had to finish on Monday. I had to go back to the hotel, and I couldn’t sleep properly. I just couldn’t wait to get back to the course. I spoke to my dad and mum, tried to keep everything as normal as I could, and I meditated a little bit on Sunday - practiced breathing exercises, trying to gather myself and calm myself down. I made birdie on the first hole back which settled me, and I managed to go on to win. I’ve always thought if something is meant to be it will happen, and I think it was just meant to come together for me that week.
Practicing meditation that morning definitely helped. It was something I was introduced to by my mum as a kid, and it’s something I relate to not just in golf but in everyday life. I don’t do it as much as I want because it’s tough to get into a routine with the fast-paced life we live, but I do it as much as I can. It’s important to remind yourself to be in the moment, and I think on the course it helps you to get out of your own way and allow your ability take over. To me meditation is also breathing to calm myself down, and I definitely try to focus on that when I’m in a tough spots or getting ahead of myself, which is something she taught me.
We’re an incredibly close-knit family, and I wouldn’t be here without the support of my dad, mum or little sister. My dad and I actually started playing golf on the same day. He was in the Indian army so I’ve pretty much lived all around India, and although it was hard moving around, it was a blessing for my golf. In India, golf is very expensive and it’s difficult just to pick up a club and play, but because most of the courses are owned by the defence services and there was a course in every area we lived, I was introduced to the game that way at the age of six. My sister tried it a little, and although my mum didn’t take it up, she would travel to the course and to tournaments with me all the time.
I think the most important thing for me in life was something my dad taught me: You always have to stay grounded, and never forget where you came from. Whatever you’ve achieved, don’t act like you’ve achieved a lot, and keep your feet on the ground. There are a lot of people at home who follow me now, and kids who look up to me since I’ve won, but my dad taught me to be humble about it. That is something I live by, and it’s something I never want to change about myself.
To be in that position now, to have kids walking with me and watching me, is a responsibility I’m proud to have. When I was growing up I would look up to Jeev (Milka-Singh) and even Anirban Lahiri and all those guys on Tour and I learned so much of what I do today from watching them. There used to be European Tour events in Delhi and as a kid I would go and walk with all these players, trying to pick up something from their game, and see how they approached things. It made a big impression on me. After turning professional I spoke to Anirban a lot, especially when I’ve been in America, and he helped me whenever I asked what I should do or how I should approach things. He’s been like a big brother figure for me ever since I was a kid, so I’ve really looked up to him.
These days kids come up to me and ask questions about life on Tour and about how they should approach the game and their careers. I definitely think I have a responsibility in helping them, because they are the future of our game and our country. If they look up to me for advice that’s fantastic, and it’s something I’m grateful for.
But while advice is great, I do think there are some things that you can’t be taught about being a professional golfer until you’ve experienced them. When I started I was playing in India and I was comfortable and having fun, because I was playing courses I grew up on, and even when I moved on to play in Asia it was easy because there were so many Indian golfers. Then when I got my Tour card at the Joburg Open and started travelling alone in 2018, I played in Asia, Europe and America, and it was all very new to me. I had times where I felt really lonely and the amount of travel was tough, and it made my respect grow for the guys that have been out here for 20-25 years. When you watch golf on TV you don’t see the jet-lag, the travel, you just criticise performances, and there’s so much more that goes into it. I felt like I grew up, and I’m happy because I’m now 24, have a lot of experience behind me, and I feel I know how to balance being alone on Tour and still be happy.
My game has also matured, and I’m a much more complete golfer than I was three years ago. The 2018 season was a purple patch for me, with my Maybank win, playing so well at my first WGC, winning Rookie of the Year on the European Tour and the Asian Tour Order of Merit. It was a great year, and last year was comparatively slow, but I’ve learnt so much in the past two years. I’m now a lot more comfortable playing on different golf courses and grasses, in different altitudes and weather conditions – whereas before I’d never had to play in Scottish rain or wear four layers of clothing. I feel my game has matured now, I’ve learned to hit different ball flights, I’ve gotten better at it, and that’s all because of the experience. These things go hand in hand, and it’s makes you a better person, and a better player.
I feel my game is in a really good place right now and if I build on that I’ll have some chances in the next few weeks. I came back after the break slightly rusty, but since the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open I’ve played decently, and I feel like I’ve made some good gains in my game in the past few weeks. Winning again is definitely a goal, and I feel like I’ve worked very, very hard not only physically but mentally, making mental notes or meditating. It’s been pretty much constant practice trying to get better since July, and I’m now in a state where every aspect of my game feels like it’s around a six or seven out of 10, which is great because I feel like that’s when you can compete.
I’ve also got my best friend Ainesh on the bag now, who has helped a lot recently. I putted horribly during the UK Swing events so I’ve spent a lot of time on the greens figuring that out, and since he’s been on the bag I’ve been so much better. He’s also a professional golfer in India, and has been with me since Northern Ireland, so it’s almost like having a third eye to help.
It’s been a nice change to have a friend here, especially with the whole bubble situation too because I haven’t been back home since July. I’ve only taken three weeks off in the past four months, and every time it’s been just 7 days at a time so it didn’t make sense to go back to India then quarantine and come back, so I’ve just been in London and the surrounding areas. He’s been the friend I really needed the last two months.
It’s also great to bring him here and share the memories of the Joburg Open, which is so much easier to grasp when you’re here rather than just telling him. It’s a lot of fun, and hopefully in the next few weeks if I play my best I will have a good chance to win.
After that, I’ll go home, and look to get off to a good start next year, because making it to the Olympics is a huge goal of mine. But right now I’m going to take it shot by shot, week by week and see what happens. As I said before, if something is meant to be it will happen.