*This is a sponsored feature by PGTI.
The ethereal Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) established in 1829 was the setting for the season finale of the 2017 Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) season, the Rs 1.5 crore McLeod Russell Tour Championships. This event was different compared to other events on the PGTI because only the top 50 golfers on the PGTI Order of Merit race were eligible to participate, this was in addition to 13 golfers who came by invitation including some of India’s best who play more frequently in overseas tournaments.
The level of this tournament was predictably more difficult compared to other tournaments on the PGTI because of the higher level of competition, the final two days became a two-way tussle between 21 year-old Shubhankar Sharma from Chandigarh and 26 year-old Rashid Khan from New Delhi. Both golfers having established themselves on the PGTI are nowadays playing more often abroad, though Khan has of late played a few PGTI events.
Khan, the runner-up at this event last year, has also had a 4th and 6th place finish at this tournament earlier, but for much of the final day, he looked good to end his jinx. A two shot lead over Sharma at the start of the 15th hole, seemed to be a good enough advantage, but a bogey from Khan and Sharma hitting a birdie on the same hole, proved to be the turning point. Khan had been the frontrunner or at least level with Sharma for almost the entirety of the final two days, but on the penultimate 17th hole, it was he who cracked first, bogeying his putt. With a one shot lead entering the final hole, Sharma held his nerve and with Khan also unable to add to his tally, all it took was a par on the 18th, to seal his first ever win at the McLeod Russell Tour Championships and with it a winners cheque of Rs 22.5 Lakhs, the highest at any PGTI event. Khan once again had to settle with the runners-up cheque of Rs 15 Lakhs.
Speaking after the event, Sharma said about his win and the two shot deficit prior to the 15th hole, “I just told myself that if I could make three birdies then I could probably catch him but then on the 15th, I made a birdie and he made a bogey so the two shot swing was gone and we were level and then I needed just one more birdie on the 16th. If I made three birdies, I was still expecting Rashid to make one more birdie, from my end I knew if I made three birdies I stood a chance.”
The participation of golfers such as Sharma and Rashid Khan gave this tournament a much-needed gloss value, there was though the PGTI Order of Merit race which still had to be settled. It was a closely-contested race between 39 year-old Shamim Khan from Delhi and the 26 year-old Ahmedabad-based Udayan Mane. Though Shamim had held the advantage for most of 2017, a stunning come-from-behind victory at the Bengaluru Open in November thrust Mane ahead , albeit by a small margin. However a good recent run of results, had swung the momentum back in Shamim’s favour and he entered the McLeod Russell Tour Championships with a lead in the Order of Merit race by a margin of around Rs. 5 Lakhs.
Mane was far from at his best through the tournament and even a five under 67 on the final day, didn’t do much help and he eventually finished joint 18th. Shamim while far away from the leaders, finished joint 4th, nine shots behind the eventual winner Sharma. It was enough for him to win the Order of Merit race as well as taking him past the Rs.50 Lakh mark for the second time, the first being in 2012. While Shamim pocketed Rs.51.6 Lakhs, Mane pocketed Rs. 43.14 Lakhs to come second.
With 14 Top 10 finishes out of the 18 tournaments he has entered this season, Shamim has been a model of consistency and perhaps the most deserving of the Order of Merit. Though he won three titles this year, he feels he ought to have won more, and regrets not having taken the opportunities that came his way like the CG Open in Mumbai where he came third and Tata Open in Jamshedpur where he came second. Upon the race for the Order of Merit where Mane gave him a tough fight, Shamim said, “Most of the tournaments with a higher prize money came at the end of the season and I knew I had to perform well there, I am quite satisfied about my performance.”
Kolkata-headquartered McLeod Russell, the world’s largest tea producing company are sponsoring the tournament at the RCGC for the sixth year now. Aditya Khaitan, the Managing Director of McLeod Russell who also happens to be the captain of the RCGC, says, “The idea behind this tournament was to get the top players from India to come and play and now that it has become a signature tournament, we are now even getting players from outside. The tournament was originally started for the upliftment of the PGTI but now it is being used for the upliftment of Indian golf. Players who play on other circuits come and play here, so it is a plus for Indian golf, for the RCGC and for us as sponsors.”
The higher standards of competition this season were very much noticeable, and it is something that the PGTI will be looking at going forward. Uttam Singh Mundy, the tour CEO, says, “We are looking at having as many big tournaments as possible, it depends on more sponsors coming forward and us tailoring to their needs and requirements.” Mundy added that amongst the PGTI’s high points this season were starting a few new tournaments and getting more government sponsors on board to support golf.
Sharma became the 6th different golfer and the 5th Indian to win this event, considered to be the most difficult on the tour to win. It was a double celebration for him this month, he had a couple of weeks ago, won the Joburg Open, a joint Asian and European tour event held in the South African city of Johannesburg. This was on top of the five previous wins he had achieved on the PGTI in his short career, prior to the McLeod Russell Championships. Despite the higher level of competition playing abroad, he rates his victory at Kolkata to be as high as the one achieved in Johannesburg, saying that any victory is equally special.
Says Sharma on his ambitions for next year, his victory at Johannesburg has assured him of a place at the Open Championships, “I’ll be playing in Europe and will be looking to keep up the form I have been having of late. My aim would be to come as close to the world’s top 50 and crack it.”
After a terrific four days, where does the McLeod Russell Championships go next. Khaitan certainly feels that after six years, the tournament needs to progress to a higher level and for that one has to increase the prize money to bring on board even better golfers. Though the matter is still a work in progress, Khaitan is looking to work with the PGTI and work on a formula to bring the tournament to this higher level.