BENGALURU: By his own admission Shubhankar Sharma's first appearance at a major is ahead of schedule and the Indian golfer is hoping a strong showing at this week's U.S. Masters will help inspire more youngsters to take up the sport back home.
Sharma received a special invite to compete at the Augusta National Golf Club following an impressive PGA Tour debut at the WGC-Mexico Championship last month, where he finished ninth after taking a lead into the final round.
The self-confessed "army brat" is eager to build on a season in which he already has two European Tour titles, and is not fazed by the thought of facing childhood idol Tiger Woods and a host of other big names when the tournament starts on Thursday.
"It`s every professional golfer`s dream to get to the Masters," the 21-year-old told Reuters from Georgia. "To be playing among the best players in the world, it`s a great feeling."
India is a massive potential market for golf but the sport, like so many others in the country, is overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of cricket.
Sharma hopes he can help raise the profile of golf back home and recalls how watching Woods tear apart the opposition when he was younger convinced him to start playing professionally.
"Tiger has been a very big inspiration especially to all the kids my age who grew up watching him," Sharma said. "It`s the first time I`m playing in the same field as him so I`m really excited about it.
"I hope kids and parents back home watch the Masters. If players in India get more exposure through the media, it`ll help kids get into golf and look at golf as a career. That is what`s missing.
"If I have a good finish this week, it will definitely help grow the game back home."
Sharma, the fourth Indian to play at the Masters after Jeev Milkha Singh, Arjun Atwal and Anirban Lahiri, credits his father`s army career for giving him access to the sport.
"I was fortunate enough to be from an army background so I could actually start playing golf because a golf course was easily accessible to us. There was a course at every station dad was posted at," he says.
"I would spend hours on the range alone, just playing by myself and that`s what I really liked about it."
At Augusta, Sharma is hoping his chances will be boosted by his partnership with the experienced Mitch Knox, a caddie who has walked the greens of golf`s grandest stage for two decades.
"Arjun Atwal and (Sweden-born golfer) Daniel Chopra suggested I go with him," Sharma said. "He`s been to the Masters for many, many years now. It`ll be great to have a man of his experience on the bag."
Sharma claimed his maiden European Tour title at the Joburg Open in December and followed that up with victory at the Maybank Championship in Malaysia before his eye-catching PGA Tour debut at the Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City.
"Honestly, if you had asked me last year, I wouldn`t have thought it possible to play the Masters this year, but I knew I was going to get here eventually," he added.
"It just shows it`s that kind of a game. If you play well and catch the right breaks everything is possible."