AUGUSTA, Ga. — Shubhankar Sharma got his first glimpse of childhood icon Tiger Woods four years ago at the Delhi Golf Club.
Sharma, his father and several friends were among the thousands crammed throughout the tight course to watch Woods play an exhibition round.
“We were pretty much running from one green to another,” Sharma said. “It was a great thing. Tiger has been a big inspiration not only to me but to a lot of kids back home, so it was just great to watch him play in person and got to learn a lot.”
Sharma expects to top that this week at Augusta National.
The 21-year-old from India, a rising star on the European Tour, is making his Masters debut and has his sights set on meeting Woods.
He got sort of close on Tuesday.
“I saw his bag outside the clubhouse,” Sharma said with a smile.
Sharma hopes to really cross paths with Woods before play begins Thursday.
“Tiger has a different aura about him and just the player that he is and how he dominated the world of golf is something,” he said. “It definitely will be a fanboy moment for me when I go and say hi to him.”
The only thing comparable might be actually playing at Augusta National for the first time. Sharma received a special invitation to the Masters following a rapid rise that saw him win twice on the European Tour in the last four months. He claimed the Joburg Open in South Africa and the Maybank Championship in Malaysia. He also tied for ninth at his first World Golf Championship in Mexico and finished seventh the following week at the Hero Indian Open.
“It’s been a treat to watch him and see how he’s backing himself,” said Anirban Lahiri, the player Sharma replaced as India’s No. 1. “He’s been unbelievable and very inspiring.”
Added Arjun Atwal, the first Indian winner on the PGA Tour: “It’s amazing to see what he’s doing at the age of 21. ... I kind of called it a few years ago when I said it was a matter of time before the younger Indians get better and better. The game is so young now, and he’s proving me right. He’s definitely proven he can win.”
He also seems to have an entire country pulling for him.
“Personally, I don’t feel any burden,” Sharma said. “I’m actually very happy that I’m getting a lot of attention. A lot of people back home are following me, and if I can get a good finish this weekend, maybe even win a green jacket, it will be great for the game.”
He already has witnessed a shift back home. When he first started playing golf in the mid-2000s, there was one course in Chandigarh, the northern city where India’s first top player, Jeev Milkha Singh, was raised. Sharma, like many Indian kids, grew up playing cricket and soccer.
But he fell in love with golf and got even more hooked while waking up early each morning in 2007 and watching Zach Johnson win the Masters.
A lot has changed since. India has more golf academies. It has more courses. It has more junior circuits. It has more kids picking up clubs.
And there are a lot more eyes on him.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a game and you just are just trying to have fun,” Sharma said. “So if my game is good enough to win here, which I feel it is and if I play my best, I will surely be in contention. You know, it’s just like any other golf tournament: You play four good rounds of golf, and you end up winning.”
Sharma doesn’t lack confidence.
Although he’s taken a businesslike approach, he’s had plenty of awe-inspiring moments: standing on the first tee for his first shot; playing Amen Corner for the first time; taking part in the tradition of skipping a ball across the par-3 16th; and making the drive down Magnolia Lane.
“It’s the best road that I’ve driven on,” he said, adding that he has gotten used to driving on the “other side” of the road. “Every time you get there you get goose bumps.”
Now, there’s really only one thing left to do before Thursday: meet Woods.
“Arjun Atwal is a good friend of his, and he told me just go up and say hi to him and he’ll be nice,” Sharma said. “So I’ll go and talk to him. It’s great that I’m competing in the same tournament as him.”