MEXICO CITY — Shubhankar Sharma stayed up in the middle of the night in India to watch golf at the highest level, usually the majors, and the best players became legends to him.
From the time he arrived in Mexico for his first World Golf Championship, he has been hitting balls on the range next to Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, and on Saturday he worked up the courage to introduce himself to Phil Mickelson on the putting green.
“It just feels like there’s a TV in front of me, and I’m actually watching it through a TV,” Sharma said.
Even more surreal? He’s beating them.
The 21-year-old from India held his nerve to the end and holed a 15-foot par putt on the 18th hole at Chapultepec Golf Club for a 2-under 69, giving him a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Mexico Championship.
Sharma has one round left to hold off a few of golf’s biggest names — starting with Mickelson.
Mickelson played bogey-free for a 65 and will be in the final group for the first time since the British Open two years ago. Joining them will be Tyrrell Hatton of England, who went out in 30 and finished off a 64.
“It’s been a long time since my game’s been back to this point,” Mickelson said. “I’m back playing some of my best golf again. It will start to click and get better and better as the year goes on.”
As for winning for the first time since the 2013 British Open?
“I think whether it happens tomorrow or not — very good chance it will — but if it doesn’t, it’s going to happen soon because I’m playing too well for it not to.”
At least there won’t be any need for an introduction. Sharma took care of that Saturday when he saw Mickelson on the putting green as he was about to tee off. His caddie, Gurbaaz Mann, played at Arizona State and walked over with him to meet Mickelson.
Mickelson might have heard about Sharma, the only two-time winner on the European Tour this season and the Race to Dubai leader.
He just didn’t recognize him.
“He thought we were media and he said, ‘Not right now. After the round,’” Sharma said with a smile. “Then he just realized it and said, ‘So sorry, I thought you were media.’ He said ‘Hi,’ I said, ‘Hi.’ Then he made a few putts and he came back to me and said, ‘Have a good day.’ It was nice.”
Sharma was at 13-under 200 and is one round away from capping an amazing rise.
Just three months ago, he had yet to win a tournament outside of India’s developmental circuit. He didn’t have a European Tour card. He was No. 462 in the world. A victory in the World Golf Championship would be his third title in his last eight starts, and likely put him in the top 25.
He faces quite a test, however.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello each had a 69 and were in the group at 11-under 202. Garcia has never won a World Golf Championship. Another shot back was Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world and defending champion, who managed a 68 despite playing the par 5s on the back nine in 1 over.
Sharma didn’t blink, even after a lead that reached four shots at one point was shrinking.
There was a little more emotion packed into those two short fist-pumps when his par putt dropped on the final hole. He had made bogey on No. 13 to fall into a share of the lead with Pat Perez. And while he bounced back with a birdie on the 14th, Sharma missed a 5-foot birdie chance on the 15th, misjudged the distance on his approach and made bogey on the 16th and was facing another bogey on the 18th when a gust knocked his ball into the bunker.
He gave a slight fist pump, and then another, when the par putt fell.
“Making par was very, very important,” he said.
Perez had three birdies in a four-hole stretch and momentarily tied Sharma for the lead. But he dropped a shot on the 16th, and then came up short in the water on the par-3 17th and made double bogey. He had to settle for a 68, though he still was just three shots behind, along with Brian Harman (68) and Xander Schauffele (70).
Justin Thomas also has new life after setting the course record with a 62, breaking by one the mark Jordan Spieth set last year. He was only four back. Spieth birdied three of his last four and was six shots behind.
Sharma had never seen such large crowds following him, and it’s still hard to digest seeing so many players he only knew from the middle of the night at home in Chandigarh. Mickelson at Muirfield. Rory McIlroy at Congressional. Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines. Sharma went straight to the range after McIlroy won his U.S. Open.
“Every time watching these majors, it really inspires you, especially watching it night,” he said. “Everything is quiet and you see a guy make a putt and you see that roar on TV. You can’t contain yourself. I remember when Tiger won the U.S. Open in 2008. I had an exam the next day, so I studied all day for the exam just so that I could watch him play. I remember when he made that putt to get into the playoff, I jumped on my bed and almost broke it.”
“These are the stories that inspire you.”
Now he’s a big part of this story in Mexico. Sunday is a final exam of another variety.
Korda, 19, shoots 65 for LPGA lead
SINGAPORE — Florida teenager Nelly Korda shot a third-round 7-under 65 Saturday to take a one-stroke lead at the LPGA Tour’s Women’s World Championship after Danielle Kang made her first bogeys of the tournament to slip back into second place.
Korda had eight birdies and one bogey as she finished on 15-under 201 heading into the final round at the Sentosa Golf Club.
Kang started the day leading by four strokes and finished trailing Korda by one after a 70. She dropped her first shot of the tournament on the 15th after going 50 holes without making a bogey, then made another mistake on 18.
“It actually doesn’t bother me. I wasn’t really thinking about whether I was going to be in the lead tomorrow or chasing, but Nelly had a really solid game today,” Kang said. “I didn’t want to finish on a bogey ... but I gave myself a really good par chance.”
Brooke Henderson had a bogey-free 65, matching Korda for the low round of the day, to join Minjee Lee (68) in a tie for third at 11 under after an extraordinary display with the putter.
“I had nine putts on the back nine, which is really awesome,” Henderson said. “Just a great day and got up-and-down when I needed to and climbed the leaderboard.”
Michelle Wie birdied four of her first five holes for a 66 to finish five shots adrift on 10-under, alongside Jessica Korda (68), Jin Yong Ko (67) and Marina Alex (70), who bogeyed three of her last four holes after briefly threatening for the lead.
The 19-year-old Nelly Korda joined the LPGA Tour last year and is chasing her first victory in what would be another incredible addition to her family’s remarkable sporting success.
Her younger brother Sebastian won the Australian Open junior boys’ singles tennis title in Melbourne in January, 20 years after their father Petr won the men’s senior Grand Slam title.
Last week, sister Jessica won the LPGA Tour event in Thailand with a tournament-record total of 25-under.
“I’m definitely inspired by her win and it definitely motivated me a bunch,” Nelly Korda said. “It was the first tournament of the year and for her to come and crush it the way she did, it was definitely inspiring and hopefully we’ll see where tomorrow takes me. She’s still there. So she still has a chance. Everyone does.”
Korda made three birdies in a row from the sixth to turn in 33 then made five more on the back nine. She dropped her only shot at the par-4 12th but joined Kang in the lead when she scrambled for a par at the 14th after overshooting the green, then she took the outright lead when she birdied the 16th.
“I was hitting the correct shots. I was aggressive when I needed to be, so I’m just happy with the way it ended and really looking forward to tomorrow,” Korda said.
Kang, who broke a tooth before her first round and almost missed her tee-off time on Saturday while lying down in the locker room, birdied the 17th to draw level with Korda at 15-under. But she gave it back when she bogeyed the last.
“Every day, it’s drama. My life is a drama. I don’t love drama. Drama loves me,” she said. “Nothing could be perfect every day, so just got to take it and run with it.”
Stricker finds water, loses Champions lead TUCSON, Ariz. — Steve Stricker lost the Cologuard Classic lead Saturday when he drove into the water on the par-5 18th in a closing double bogey.
A year after losing a chance to win the event in his PGA Tour Champions debut when his 3-wood went left into the water on the final hole, Stricker did it again Saturday.
Stricker ended up with a 3-under 70, leaving him a stroke behind Tommy Tolles with a round left on Omni Tucson National’s Catalina Course. Tolles bogeyed the 18th for a 70 after following Stricker into the water.
The 50-year-old Tolles, making his eighth start on the senior tour, had an 11-under 135 total.
Scott Dunlap, tied for the first-round lead with Tolles, was tied with Stricker at 10 under after a 71. Dunlap, Tolles and Stricker will play in a threesome Sunday for the second straight day.
Rocco Mediate (65) and Doug Garwood (68) were 9 under.
Mike Small, the University of Illinois coach playing on a sponsor exemption, followed his opening 66 with a 73 to drop into a tie for 10th at 7 under. Lehman was 3 under after a 72, and Bernhard Langer had a 77 to drop to 1 under.