“The key is to stay calm,” says 20-year-old Shubhankar Sharma, enunciating each word slowly, as if to internalise his own gospel. “This is a difficult golf course, the conditions can vary dramatically, and literally anything can happen. You’ve got to be level-headed when you lose shots, or have a bad day,” he says. He pauses for a moment, thinking. “And even more so when you have a good day,” he then adds solemnly.
Sharma is being considered a top contender at the Hero Indian Open 2017, which tees off March 9. This is not because he’s won on tour, but because his performances have been steadily gravitating toward that outcome. In 2016, he consolidated his position on the Asian Tour by notching up a couple of top five finishes and racking up close to $100,000 in prize money. In 2017, he’s already made more than that from a mere four tournaments, including two big-ticket events in Singapore and Malaysia.
Because he’s sponsored by DLF, he’s also one of the few players to have played extensively at the new venue. The Gary Player Course at the DLF Golf & Country Club in Gurugram is a completely re-designed championship layout, one that has not yet hosted an international men’s professional tournament (however, the Ladies Indian Open has been held here twice).
It’s an unabashedly modern layout: long, peppered with water bodies, serious elevation changes tee-to-green, undulating fairways and glassy greens. The greens are so large, in fact, that merely hitting them in regulation is less important than hitting the right spots: expect the tour to set up easy pin placements to start with, and then allow the course to really bare its teeth over the weekend.
But the new design isn’t the only change afoot. For fans who have been following the game in India since the 1990s, the Hero Indian Open 2017 promises to provide a fascinating juxtaposition of the three distinct modern eras. The original trio of Indian golf, now in their early to mid-forties-Arjun Atwal, Jeev Milkha Singh and Jyoti Randhawa-are coming in with a resurgent string of good finishes over the past few months. The thirty-somethings-S.S.P. Chawrasia and Shiv Kapur-are in great form. And finally, the young guns in their twenties-Sharma, Honey Baisoya, Chikkarangappa, Khalin Joshi, Rashid Khan, Gaganjeet Bhullar, and India’s top-ranked player, Anirban Lahiri-represent the most formidable group of those making a run for the lion’s share of the $1.75 million purse.
There’s a sense of palpable excitement as a result. Even better, the weather forecast for the week is tantalisingly fine and fair: the projected sporadic short showers and overcast skies promise to keep the mercury below 30 degrees.
Nineteen-year-old Aditi Ashok, unquestionably the most prodigious lady golfer India has ever produced, reinforced her credentials as one of the game’s elite players by winning the Ladies Indian Open last year at this very pitch. Can 20-year-old Sharma, or one of the others in the youngest bunch of upstarts in the history of the men’s game in India, follow suit? That’s what almost everybody will be hoping to see.