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).
“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?