by Aman Misra in Mumbai
This year 9,049 applicants teed it up in qualifying in spots across the world, vying for spots in the United States National Open Golf Championship.
Not far from last week’s tournament host at Muirfield Village Golf Club, was the Lakes Golf and Country Club, host to the single-day sectional qualifier.
A grueling 36-hole affair was held with much media attention given that there were marquee players such as Adam Scott and Keegan Bradley involved.
When the dust settled, 14 out of 120 advanced to the historical Shinnecock Hills for the playing of the Open next week.
Among those was Indian golfer, Shubhankar Sharma, coming off a whirlwind two weeks on the PGA Tour.
Your correspondent caught up with Sharma’s bagman and mentor Gurbaaz Maan to talk qualifying and preparation for the ‘brutal’ week that is the US Open.
Speaking on the phone from Ohio, Maan has memories of the last Open held at Shinnecock in 2004; watching on TV as South African Retief Goosen won his second US Open.
“Something that stood out was how hard the greens were,” he says.
Onto the discussion of Sharma’s game, he talks about the minute adjustments professionals make when they shift from the east to the west of the world working their way up the big time.
“Playing in the (United) States is nothing Shubhankar hasn’t seen before. For him, it was negotiating the rough and the differences in greens.” offers Maan.
Every golfer has certain instincts growing up. These may need to be adjusted given the differences in conditions depending on where one is playing in the world.
After Sharma rallied to finish in the Top-20 at Ben Hogan’s home tournament, he missed cut the next week at the Memorial hosted by Jack Nicklaus.
In Maan’s words, this was a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio (the city that hosts the Memorial) and I’m familiar with the courses here. Coming into Jack’s place, Shubhankar hit the ball very well but his wedges and putter weren’t doing justice.”
Hours of practice with the lob wedge, a tricky little wedge designed to get the ball up-and-down helped.
Maan adds “In fact, he holed out with the same club during the US Open qualifier that followed the Memorial.”
Sharma finished 69,68 for a total of 137 – two strokes behind the medalists Sungjae Im and Shane Lowry to punch his ticket to Shinnecock.
Explaining the competition on the US Tour, Maan says “When the field is always going low, you don’t have a choice but to shoot low scores. Shubhankar understands this now.”
Speaking about Sharma’s first appearance at the Masters’ tournament earlier in the year, Maan says the experience for any rookie is overwhelming. “He’s learned to treat it like just any other golf tournament.”
For Sharma, this is the year of learning. Stories of tour professionals getting used to conditions on and off the course in faraway lands are not uncommon.
Shubhankar is listening and adjusting every step of the way.