By Rahul Banerji
Shubhankar Sharma is keen to maintain his push for a PGA Tour card and a spot in the Presidents Cup at the $9.5 million CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges that starts Thursday.
The 22-year-old finished T10 at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia on Sunday after entering the final round as joint leader with eventual winner Marc Leishman.
That disappointment was forgotten when Ernie Els, captain of the President’s Cup International team, invited him for a practice round at Jeju island in South Korea on Tuesday.
It brought back memories for Sharma who was hand-picked by Els during a golf clinic in New Delhi in 2008.
He is now fired up to launch another strong run in this week’s event despite the strong field around him
He will contend against the likes of title holder and 2017 FedExCup champion Justin Thomas, Leishman, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Billy Horschel in South Korea’s only PGA Tour tournament in its second edition.
Sharma recalled travelling to Delhi Golf Club to watch the Indian Masters and remembers vividly what Els, a four-time major winner, told him during the clinic.
“I traveled a long way just to get to Delhi. I walked with Ernie in the first round and I think after the second round was when he had his clinic.
“I was one of the lucky ones to go up to him and say hi and then obviously hit a few shots with his 9‑iron.
“There was like a 100 yard board on the range and I hit both my shots, landed right next to the board. The crowd was clapping and it was quite a good moment for me.
“Two or three kids before me tried to hit it and they couldn’t really connect.
“It was his club, it was like a heavy 9 iron, so just to hit those two shots was very special and that made my day,” said Sharma.
“And then Ernie gave me his card, he signed his card and gave it to me and he said, ‘You’ll be a good player one day, just keep working hard’.”
Els, who has featured in eight Presidents Cup, believes Sharma will contend for a place in his International team.
“I played with Shubhankar, who’s had an incredible year. And he’s only 22 years old,” said Els, who celebrated his 49th birthday on Wednesday.
“I wasn’t familiar that he was right behind me when we were hitting balls and we were talking about it. This kind of stories doesn’t normally happen.
“You watch your hero play and you want be like him. It’s not many times it comes to fruition.
“I had the same situation with Gary Player where I asked him for his autograph when I was a kid and he doesn’t even remember.
“But it made such an impact in my life and it’s amazing how it translates in your mind and changes your life. It’s amazing how you can touch lives without even knowing,” added Els.
With close friend Anirban Lahiri having played the last two Presidents Cup, Sharma has made it a goal to get to Royal Melbourne.
“The next Presidents Cup is going to be huge with Ernie and Tiger being captains. The International Team could have pulled off a great win in Korea (in 2015).
“It definitely ranks in the top three (goals) with the majors and with the WGCs. Playing the Presidents Cup would be a huge honour,” he said.
“Anirban has done it, and if both of us can make the team, that will be the icing on the cake. “
Sharma contended in Malaysia last weekend before slipping back with a closing 72.
As he is in the field at Jeju and also in next week’s World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, both with no cuts, he is hoping to take a big step towards earning his PGA Tour card via the non-member category.
“Only positives to take away from last week,” said Sharma, who got into this week’s field as the highest ranked player from the Asian Tour.
“It’s always good when you’re in contention at a PGA Tour event and I’ve been lucky to be in contention twice this year, leading off the three days in both tournaments.
“A top‑10 finish is never bad on the PGA Tour even though I would have liked to be slightly higher than that, but I just want to take positives out of last week.
“I feel like my game’s in a good spot and I have two more weeks to try and do my best,” said Sharma who finished T9 at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February.