Record number of Asian golfers compete for Masters glory

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Record number of Asian golfers compete for Masters glory

PGA Tour

Record number of Asian golfers compete for Masters glory

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Shubhankar Sharma was just two days removed from tying for ninth at the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he held the 54-hole lead in his World Golf Championships debut. The 21-year-old landed back home in India, around 7 p.m. on March 6, when he saw a message on his phone. It was from Buzzy Johnson, senior director of the Masters Tournament, and he insisted that Sharma return his call.

When Sharma did he was welcomed with a special exemption into this year’s field at Augusta National.

“The next day I was joking with my friends … there was a post on the Masters website that Shubhankar Sharma accepts the invitation to play in the Masters, and I was like, ‘There’s no question about it. Why wouldn’t I accept it?’” Sharma said. “Somebody gets an invite to the Masters, I will definitely accept that.”

Throughout Masters history, Augusta National has extended invitations to deserving international players not otherwise qualified. The special invitation given to Sharma is the first handed out by the Masters Tournament since 2013, when Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa was invited for the third straight year.

Sharma’s inclusion in this year’s Masters also pushed the number of Asian players in the field to 10, a tournament record – and good news for a tournament that in the last decade has increased its efforts to grow the game in that part of the world.

“The Masters means a lot to the Asian players,” Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat said. “It pushes a lot of us hard to perform well and try to get to Augusta. When I started playing golf, I knew the Masters was the biggest tournament in the world. I have a lot of memories of watching the tournament on TV as a kid, seeing Tiger Woods winning green jackets. I looked forward to being here one day and now I’ve made it twice, but I still get nervous and excited every time I come here.”

Aphibarnrat, at No. 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is one of six Asian players ranked inside the world’s top 60 entering this week. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama is ranked best among them, at No. 6.

Of course, special exemptions and being ranked well aren’t the only tickets to Augusta National for Asian golfers. In 2009, the Masters Tournament created the Asia-Pacific Amateur with the winner of the event earning a trip to compete at Augusta National. Matsuyama won the event twice, in 2010 and ’11, and 14-year-old Tianlang Guan, the 2012 winner and the event’s first from China, made the cut at the 2013 Masters.

This year, China’s Yuxin Lin, 17, is the beneficiary of the gateway event. When he started going to the range with his dad at 6 years old, Lin dreamed of an opportunity like this, to get to play a course as immaculate as Augusta National, a stark contrast to the range mats and lack of grass back home when he was a child.

Now, playing in the tournament is a reality for him and more achievable for other young Chinese golfers. Many of them no longer practice on low-grade ranges but rather modern golf facilities built by the Chinese Golf Association. And they have plenty of playing opportunities and chances to compete in pro events, including majors. One of Lin’s best friends, Cheng Jin, also won the Asia-Pacific Amateur, in 2015, and played in the Masters one year later.

“Back home where I started playing golf, there were only 300 kids in the whole country, or maybe 400, (playing golf),” Lin said, “but now it’s definitely grown a lot. I can see a bunch of kids on the range every day at practice. … The game in China is just getting really popular.”

Yuxin Lin of China won the 2017 Asia-Pacific Amateur. (David Paul Morris/AAC)

Sharma and Aphibarnrat see the same trends in their home countries.

“I think a lot of things have changed back home in the past decade,” Sharma said. “After I started playing golf, seeing so many changes, the coaching facilities have become better. We have a few more academies now for golfers to train. … We have more golf courses now. We have more kids playing on the junior circuits.  We have more junior circuits; we only had one when I was a kid, but we have four or five different junior circuits back home now.”

Aphibarnrat even opened up a training center in his name for young golfers back in Thailand. When he’s home, he spends a lot of time there sharing advice and inspiring the next wave of Thai golfers.

“I still believe that in the next few years a lot more Thai players will be on the bigger tours, especially on the PGA Tour,” Aphibarnrat said.

Aphibarnrat, 28, has already won four times in his European Tour career, and Sharma has won twice this season on the tour. Though neither have won in the U.S., that kind of success goes a long way in growing the game in their homelands. Sharma said he had people come up to him at the Hero Indian Open last month and tell him that they stayed up late at night to watch him play in Mexico.

He expects many more to watch his Masters debut.

Sharma doesn’t feel the pressure of a nation to win India’s first major championship this week. But he does acknowledge the potential significance. (Vijay Singh, one of the 10 Asians in the field this week, won a Masters for Fiji back in 2000.)

“I feel like it will do wonders for the game back home,” Sharma said. “I feel like more and more kids will start playing, and every sport needs a hero, and we have a few heroes back home, but a major winner has a different sound to it.”

And a green jacket a different look – one that many Asian golfers will be trying to wear come Sunday at Augusta National in hopes that it inspires a nation.

• • •

Record breakers

The 10 Asian golfers playing in the 2018 Masters:

  • Vijay Singh, Fiji
  • Si Woo Kim, South Korea
  • Yuxin Lin, China
  • Haotong Li, China
  • Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Thailand
  • Hideki Matsuyama, Japan
  • Yuta Ikeda, Japan
  • Yusaku Miyazato, Japan
  • Satoshi Kodaira, Japan

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