All eyes on Shubhankar as India looks to retain Hero Indian Open crown

Sharma, 21, secured two European Tour titles at the Joburg Open and Maybank Championship to lead the Race to Dubai rankings while breaking into the world’s top 100.

Shubhankar Sharma finished a commendable tied ninth following a disappointing 74 at the Club de Golf Chapultepec.   -  AP

Seldom has a 21-year-old Indian golfer cornered so much attention on the eve of the country’s oldest professional event.

Shubhankar Sharma, whose ranking has rocketed to 66 ahead of several more accomplished compatriots, could find it tough to live up to the rising expectations when he tees off for the Hero Indian Open at the challenging Gary Player-designed DLF Golf and Country Club, his home course.

Should the youngster carry his present form to the $1.75 million event here this week, it will brighten the prospect of the making of a 10th home-grown champion in the country’s flagship event.

Strangely since 2015, when the event became part of the European Tour, the ‘marquee’ players from Europe have come a cropper.

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This year, Thomas Bjorn becomes the first current Ryder Cup skipper to play here. The 2016 Ryder Cup captain and 2011 Open winner Darren Clarke along with former Ryder Cup players Jamie Donaldson, Stephen Gallacher, David Howell, Edorardo Molinari and Chris Wood present a serious overseas challenge. Besides the presence of these names, along with the cream of Indian golf, a surprise winner on Sunday cannot be ruled out.

Shubhankar’s presence has already helped two-time defending champion S.S.P. Chawrasia escape excessive attention as he tries to become the first to win a hat-trick of titles in the oldest dollar-event of the country.

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Last year, against all odds, Chawrasia retained the title at this redesigned course, resembling the Parkland golf properties dotting the landscape in Florida. The whopping seven-stroke margin was a bigger surprise since the diminutive Chawrasia is not known to hit the ball long. In fact, all week, he averaged only about 266 yards off the tee!

But Chawrasia’s precise hitting, smart lay-ups and firm putting earned him the honours. This year, too, despite his indifferent form that has kept his world ranking to a distant 250, Chawrasia can emerge as a contender over the weekend.

The 2015 champion Anirban Lahiri (ranked 80th), Gaganjeet Bhullar (154), Shiv Kapur (192nd), Ajeetsh Sandhu (202nd), 1999 winner Arjun Atwal (376th) and Khalin Joshi (392nd) – all in the top-500 in World rankings – are part of the field.

The two ‘sentimental favourites’ former champion Jyoti Randhawa (598th) and eternal crowd-puller Jeev Milkha Singh (1101st) are also back in the hunt.

Overall, the home challenge looks formidable without the benefit of any ‘home’ advantage since only a few are familiar with the challenges posed by this testing course – a good number of water hazards, large bunkers and undulating fairways leading to soft greens!

As Lahiri observed, “the course is in fantastic condition. They have made some changes on the back-nine. The 15th, 16th and 17th have been lengthened. If the wind picks up, you might see that length factor come in. Obviously, the 10th hole is going to play a little bit harder. Overall I think you might see the course play a fraction harder.”