Shubhankar Sharma is set to become only the fourth Indian golfer to play the US MastersShubhankar Sharma is set to become only the fourth Indian golfer to play the US Masters. (AFP Photo/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)
Gurgaon (India) (AFP) - Shubhankar Sharma's stunning rise up the golf rankings has taken many by surprise but former world number one Ernie Els predicted the Indian's ascent a decade ago.
The 21-year-old Sharma rocketed from 462nd to 66th place in three months following two European Tour wins and a strong showing at the WGC-Mexico Championships last weekend.
He ended tied ninth at the PGA Tour event in Mexico after leading going into the final round, when he was overtaken by American great Phil Mickelson.
Speaking to AFP ahead of the Indian Open in Gurgaon, Sharma revealed that it was Els who spotted his talent at a coaching clinic in 2008.
"He put the ball on the tee for me at Delhi Golf Course range and I hit two great shots right near the 100-yard board and he was really happy," said Sharma.
"He said you are going to be a great player one day and just keep practising. And for a kid like me who was only 10 at that time it just made my day, I was so happy that I couldn't sleep that night."
- 'Anything is possible' -
"I met Ernie after that in Abu Dhabi recently and I told him about the story and he was really happy that I have progressed so well," Sharma added.
And he is setting his sights high.
"There still is a lot to be done if you see golf at an international level. Obviously if you see from Indian standards some people feel I have done well and have to keep playing the way I have and get to the PGA Tour," said Sharma, who was introduced to the game by his father at the age of seven.
He highlighted Jordan Spieth's feat of winning the Masters at 21.
"You just have to look at the greats of the game and then you know how much work you have to put in to get there.
"Just the kind of game golf is, anything is possible at any time if you play well. Just like what happened to me after November, I was 571 in the world and now I am 66. I knew I had the game in me."
Sharma, after trying soccer, basketball and cricket, stuck to golf following encouragement from his father, who served as an officer in the Indian army.
He turned pro at 16 and now hopes his success will inspire India's cricket-crazy youth to take up golf.
"I am really happy that finally golf is getting a lot of attention in India and I think we need that," he said.
"Just to get more and more players to the PGA Tour and just telling the general public about what golf in India is all about and we have so many great players playing at the world stage."
- 'Sachin moment' -
Sharma's father Mohan Sharma also believes that his son's success will inspire Indian children to play golf, drawing parallels with cricket great Sachin Tendulkar.
"In early nineties I watched Sachin and his documentaries and how his name changed the business of cricket. Similarly his story is going to be an inspiration and it will be a Sachin moment for golf," Mohan Lal told AFP.
"His honesty, his character is what he stands for. He believes more in listening than in talking. Same in golf, he speaks with his clubs rather than his mouth," he added.
Sharma's peers at the Indian Open praised his achievements, with Lahiri calling his rise "massive and huge" for Indian golf.
Sharma will be hoping for a better finish in Augusta than in Mexico, where he closed with a three-over-par 74 to share ninth.
"I am working on every aspect of my game and (will) be totally prepared before I get there. I have to work a lot on my short game, hitting and everything," he said.
"I know I have the game to go and contend there and play well. But it's about playing well at the right time."