(Reuters) – India’s Shubhankar Sharma surprised a few people, but not himself, as he upstaged the biggest names in golf for a two-shot halfway lead at the WGC-Mexico Championship on Friday.
In his first appearance in a World Golf Championships event, Sharma added a five-under-par 66 to his opening round 65 to set the pace at 11-under 131 at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City.
“I didn’t really put any pressure on myself before I came here. I expected to play well,” the 21-year-old told Golf Channel.
“I’m really happy that I’m playing at such a high level and playing with all these great players. I’ve tried to enjoy myself as much as possible out there and this is the best position I could have been in.
“I’ve definitely proved to myself that I belong here and I can play with the big boys.”
Several of those big boys were lurking close, with Spanish duo of Sergio Garcia (65) and Rafa Cabrera Bello (67) in a share of second with American Xander Schauffele (68) on nine-under.
First round leader Louis Oosthuizen (71) backtracked to fall four shots off the pace in a large group sharing fifth, which also included defending champion Dustin Johnson (66).
Sharma entered the week already ranked first on the European Tour after two early-season victories but it would be fair to suggest he was not a name on everyone’s lips pre-tournament.
An eagle on Friday at the short par-four first hole, where he drove the ball to inside two feet for a tap-in, changed that and bogeys at the next two holes proved minor setbacks.
The five birdies he picked up on the back nine, including at the final three holes, helped him stamp his authority on the event.
“I just kept the ball in play throughout the day,” Sharma said.
“The only two bogeys I made were three putts. I kept the ball in the fairway and gave myself as many chances to attack the pin as possible.”
Sharma has plenty to play for over the weekend, not least a shot at securing a spot at next month’s Masters.
Currently ranked 75th in the world, he needs to climb into the top 50 in the next four weeks, or better yet win a tournament, to qualify for Augusta National.
But Sharma is likely to feel some heat in the final two rounds, with reigning Masters champion Garcia among those poised to pounce.
“We still have a long weekend to go,” Garcia said. “The course is getting firmer and tougher as the week goes on. Hopefully I can play more of the same.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Nick Mulvenney)