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One for the ages: Sharma, 21, vs. Phil, 47

By Rex HoggardMarch 4, 2018, 12:29 am

MEXICO CITY – Who is Shubhankar Sharma?

For those who will find themselves asking the question on Sunday, take heart that the soft-spoken player from India is obscure even among the game’s play-for-pay set.

“I don't know, other than he's young. He's like 21, right?" laughed 24-year-old Justin Thomas. "Man, kids,” 

Even those who may have crossed paths with Sharma on the European Tour, which he qualified for with his victory in December at the Joburg Open, had only a passing knowledge.

“Relatively new,” Rafa Cabrera Bello shrugged. “I haven't really watched him play. I'm sure he's a very talented player, but I haven't had the opportunity to watch him play or play alongside him.”

It’s safe to say the world will be watching on Sunday when Sharma will set out at Chapultepec Golf Club with a two-stroke lead over the likes of Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia (with Dustin Johnson another stroke back) in the WGC-Mexico Championship. Sure, those names sound familiar.

But who is Shubhankar Sharma and how did he get from Gurugram, India, a suburb of New Delhi, to Mexico and one of the game’s marquee events?

This much we know:

Sharma turned pro at 16 and has spent the last five years playing in relative obscurity in Asia.

Before that Joburg Open breakthrough he didn’t have a victory on a major tour anywhere in the world, he didn’t have a European Tour card and he was 462nd in the world ranking.

From global journeyman to the doorstep of PGA Tour stardom in three months, Ferdinand Magellan didn’t cover that much ground.

He’s 21 going on 31 with a calm mind that has transcended the brightest lights of a World Golf Championship.

He’s not your prototypical modern professional. He doesn’t hit the golf ball miles, he’s not an imposing figure, standing just 5-feet-9, but through 54 holes he’s stood tall against the game’s titans – posting rounds of 65-66-69 for a 13-under total.

He’s playing his first Tour event and admitted that there has been a nonstop parade of surreal moments this week as he found himself side by side with the players he’s watched and idolized for years.

Oh, and he can putt - as evidenced by his 14-footer for par at the 18th hole on Saturday to secure the most unlikely of 54-hole advantages (as an aside, he also has a vintage fist pump).

Full-field scores from the WGC-Mexico Championship

WGC-Mexico Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Obviously a dream come true for me to be playing in this tournament and obviously leading, that's just fantastic,” Sharma said. “I made a few mistakes on the greens but the greens are tough this week so I think everyone's making a few mistakes. I wasn't too hard on myself. Very happy that I could grind out a par on the last hole.”

He will need more of that on Sunday. For all the unknowns that come with Sharma, there’s nothing but proven products lurking behind him.

On Thursday following a 72 that Thomas said was “probably the worst I've ever felt over the ball in my life,” last week’s winner at the Honda Classic was back in familiar form with a course-record 62 on Day 3 that lifted him into the top 10.

Just three strokes behind the surprise leader was Johnson, the defending champion who shot his sixth consecutive round in the 60s at Chapultepec (68) and sounded as ominous as ever.

“I feel like I'm in a really good position,” Johnson said. “I feel like the game's in really good form. So there is a low one in there, hopefully it's tomorrow.”

Garcia also kept the pressure on, offsetting two bogeys with four birdies for a 69 that left him tied for second place at 11 under.

But it will be Mickelson who will be waiting on the first tee on Sunday. At least Sharma got the introductions out of the way before Saturday’s round.

“Me and my caddie went up to [Mickelson]. He thought we were media and he said, ‘Not right now, after the round,’” laughed Sharma, who will be grouped with Mickelson and Tyrrell Hatton. “Then he just realized and said, ‘So sorry, I thought you were media.’ He said ‘hi.’ I said ‘hi.’ Then he made a few putts and he came back to me and said, ‘Have a good day.’ It was nice.”

That surreal moment aside, Mickelson is the only player Sharma introduced himself to this week. “Phil is a legend,” he said. For context, consider that when Sharma was born, Lefty already had 113 starts, eight wins and 25 top-10s on Tour.

Mickelson, who is coming off his most consistent stretch in years, having finished inside the top 10 in his last three starts, has played un-Phil-like golf for the first three days. He’s driven the ball well, putted well and made just a single bogey over his last 36 holes.

For a player who is nearly five years removed from his last victory (2013 Open Championship) the confidence has returned.

“I'm putting the ball in play better, my iron play's back, my short game is back, I've been putting well, so overall I've been playing well and the scores are starting to reflect it,” said Mickelson, who won this event (2009 at Doral) during a different era. “So I'll get that ‘W.’ I don't know if it's tomorrow, I don't know when, but it will be soon, and when I do, I think I'll start to peel off a few.”

But first he’ll have to outduel Sharma, whose most vivid images of the game are watching major championships as a child into the early hours back home in India.

For three days, Sharma has exuded a quiet confidence and a refreshing indifference to his situation. Depending on how things play out on Sunday he can move into the top 25 in the world ranking - the highest ranking by a player from India - secure a start in the next World Golf Championship in three weeks and, with a victory, earn a trip to his first major at Augusta National.

He could also drastically change the narrative, from who is Shubhankar Sharma to what will he do next?

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After Further Review: Woods wisely keeping things in perspective

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 3:17 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Tiger Woods' career comeback ...

Tiger Woods seems to be the only one keeping his comeback in the proper perspective. Asked after his tie for fifth at Bay Hill whether he could ever have envisioned his game being in this shape heading into Augusta, he replied: “If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” He’s healthy. He’s been in contention. He’s had two realistic chances to win. There’s no box unchecked as he heads to the Masters, and no one, especially not Woods, could have seen that coming a few months ago. – Ryan Lavner

On Tiger carrying momentum into API, Masters ...

Expect Jordan Spieth to leave Austin with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play trophy next week.

After all, Spieth is seemingly the only top-ranked player who has yet to lift some hardware in the early part of 2018. Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have all gotten it done, as have Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and most recently Rory McIlroy.

Throw in the sudden resurgence of Tiger Woods, and with two more weeks until the Masters there seem to be more azalea-laden storylines than ever before.

A Spieth victory in Austin would certainly add fuel to that fire, but even if he comes up short the 2015 champ will certainly be a focus of attention in a few short weeks when the golf world descends upon Magnolia Lane with no shortage of players able to point to a recent victory as proof that they’re in prime position to don a green jacket. – Will Gray

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Davies not giving up on win, HOF after close call

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 3:06 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies knows the odds are long now, but she won’t let go of that dream of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.

At 54, she was emboldened by her weekend run at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She tied for second, five shots behind Inbee Park.

“The more I get up there, I might have a chance of winning again,” Davies said. “I'm not saying I will ever win, but today was close. Maybe one day I can go closer.”

Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, but she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in 2001. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Over her career, she has won 20 LPGA titles, four of them major championships. She was the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996. She probably would have locked up Hall of Fame status if she hadn’t been so loyal to the Ladies European Tour, where she won 45 titles.

Though Davies didn’t win Sunday in Phoenix, there was more than consolation in her run into contention.

“Now people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

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Davies impresses, but there's no catching Park

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 2:40 am

PHOENIX – Inbee Park won the tournament.

Laura Davies won the day.

It was a fitting script for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on Sunday, where nostalgia stirs the desert air in such a special way.

Two of the game’s all-time best, LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park and World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies, put on a show with the tour’s three living founders applauding them in the end.

Park and Davies made an event all about honoring the tour’s past while investing in its future something to savor in the moment. Founders Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Marlene Hagge Vossler cheered them both.

For Park, there was meaningful affirmation in her 18th LPGA title.

In seven months away from the LPGA, healing up a bad back, Park confessed she wondered if she should retire. This was just her second start back. She won feeling no lingering effects from her injury.

“I was trying to figure out if I was still good enough to win,” Park said of her long break back home in South Korea. “This proved to me I can win and play some pain-free golf.”

At 54, Davies kept peeling away the years Sunday, one sweet swing after another. She did so after shaking some serious nerves hitting her first tee shot.

“It’s about as nervous as I’ve ever felt,” Davies said. “I swear I nearly shanked it.”

Davies has won 45 Ladies European Tour events and 20 LPGA titles, but she was almost 17 years removed from her last LPGA title. Still, she reached back to those times when she used to rule the game and chipped in for eagle at the second hole to steady herself.

“It calmed me down, and I really enjoyed the day,” Davies said.

With birdies at the ninth and 10th holes, Davies pulled from three shots down at day’s start to within one of Park, sending a buzz through all the fans who came out to root for the popular Englishwoman.

“People were loving it,” said Tanya Paterson, Davies’ caddie. “We kept hearing, `Laura, we love you.’ It was special for Laura, showing she can still compete.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Davies relished giving all the young players today, who never saw how dominant she once was, some flashes from her great past.

“Yesterday, after I had that 63, a lot of the younger girls came up and said, `Oh, great playing today,”’ Davies said. “It was nice, I suppose, to have that. I still am a decent player, and I actually used to be really good at it. Maybe that did give them a glimpse into what it used to be like.”

She also relished showing certain fans something.

“Now, people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

Davies was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996, when she won two of her four major championships. She was emboldened by the way she stood up to Sunday pressure again.

In the end, though, there was no catching Park, who continues to amaze with her ability to win coming back from long breaks after injuries.

Park, 29, comes back yet again looking like the player who reigned at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, won three consecutive major championships in 2013 and won the Olympic gold medal two years ago.

“The reason that I am competing and playing is because I want to win and because I want to contend in golf tournaments,” Park said.

After Davies and Marina Alex mounted runs to move within one shot, Park pulled away, closing ferociously. She made four birdies in a row starting at the 12th and won by five shots. Her famed putting stroke heated up, reminding today’s players how nobody can demoralize a field more with a flat stick.

“I just felt like nothing has dropped on the front nine,” Park said. “I was just thinking to myself, `They have to drop at some point.’ And they just started dropping, dropping, dropping.”

Yet again, Park showed her ability to win after long breaks.

In Rio de Janeiro two years ago, Park the Olympic gold medal in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year, in just her second start upon returning.

“I'm really happy to have a win early in the season,” Park said. “That just takes so much pressure off me.”

And puts it on the rest of the tour if she takes her best form to the year’s first major at the ANA Inspiration in two weeks.



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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”