Dubai: There were a whole lot of winners as the curtains closed on the 2018 season of the European Tour. Danny Willett took the DP World Tour Championships to end a 32- month title drought since his Masters win in 2016 while Italian Francesco Molinari completed an amazing season winning the Race to Dubai. And then there was Shubhankar Sharma, who became the first Indian and the third Asian in four years to emerge as the Rookie of the Year on the European Tour. Sharma secured his berth into the Open next year as the 28th place finisher on Race to Dubai. Add to them Matt Wallace, who ended a three-win season with a Tied-second place and entered Top-50 in the world rankings.
Sharma won the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year on the European Tour award despite a disappointing final round of 80. It was not the way Sharma would have liked his European Tour season to end but as he said, "It is what it is. It has been a great season and to come out with this (Rookie of the Year) award, about which I knew nothing till a few ago, is indeed a positive."
Sharma, starting the day at 10-under and in Tied-ninth place, carded 80 with just two birdies, seven bogeys and a triple bogey to be Tied-41st. Yet with his nearest rivals, Lucas Herbert (72 and T-49th) and Sam Horsfield (73 and Tie-41st) not coming any closer than they were at the start of the week, Sharma took the honours. Sharma had 1,431,741 points to Herbert's 1,012,921 and Horsfield's 883,067.
Your Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year.
- The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 18, 2018
It was a dream season for Molinari. This year he won his maiden Major at the Open, his first PGA Tour title, the European Tour's flagship event "the BMW PGA International and five points in five matches in Ryder Cup. He completed the Golden run in Dubai.
Molinari said, "You know, now I'm going to have time to sit down and relax and really think back about the last few months. I'm really struggling for words. It's more than I ever dreamed of achieving. I've seen guys that I think are better players than me not winning majors and not winning Order of Merits or Race to Dubai. To achieve those things, you know, in one single season, is just incredible."
Molinari (71) was only T-26th this week, but with his nearest rival, defending champion Tommy Fleetwood (68), who needed to win, finishing only T-16, the big R2D mace went to the Italian. Meanwhile, Willet, who came into the week at 276 in the world " he was 462nd in May " won his first title since the 2016 Masters, which was 953 days ago.
Willett made three birdies in his last five holes to get to 18 under, two shots clear of fellow Englishman Matt Wallace and reigning Masters Champion Patrick Reed. Defending champion Jon Rahm was then at 14 under alongside fellow Spaniard Adrian Otaegui and South African Dean Burmester.
Sharma, talking of his final round eight-over 80 at Dubai's Earth Course at the Jumeirah Estates, said, "This is golf. There was some good coming despite a round like that. I would have loved to finish better, but a series of small things like poor decisions, not-so-good hitting and putting and so on, including the pace of play. All that is part of the game, so I learnt a lot. In the end, it was nice to come out Rookie of the Year award and a place at 2019 Open."
He added, "It has been a lot of fun, learning and tiring, but I have enjoyed the journey and of course there is still more golf to go as I have some more events to play. I am looking forward to the Asian Tour where I am leading the Order of Merit. For that, I have to ensure a good next week in Hong Kong."
Interestingly, the 22-year-old Sharma is the third Asian in last four years to win this European Tour accolade, after Byeong Hun An (2015) and Wang Jeunghun (2016).
No Indian has won the Rookie of the Year award in European Tour, though three Indians " Arjun Atwal (1995), Shiv Kapur (2005) and C Muniyappa (2009) won the Rookie of the Year award on the Asian Tour.
Sharma, who did not win the Rookie of the Year on either Indian or Asian Tours, is currently leading the Asian Tour's Habitat for Humanity Order of Merit and is in line to emulate Jyoti Randhawa (2002), Atwal (2003), Jeev Milkha Singh (2006 and 2008) and Anirban Lahiri (2015) who have been crowned as the No 1 golfers in Asia in the past.
Great season for Sharma
Sharma, who started off the season with T-10 at the Hong Kong Open exactly a year, has in the season won two events " the Joburg Open in December 2017 and the Maybank Championships in February 2018.
He has led the Rookies standing ever since then and coming into the last event in Dubai, he was chased by Lucas Herbert of Australia and Sam Horsfield. But both needed to come close to a win or at least Top-2 or three and have Sharma finish way down in the 60-player field.
Through the season, Sharma played 26 events, including all four Majors, but made the cut in only the Open Championships, which was in the same week as his 22nd birthday. Sharma also figured in all four WGC Championships, none of which had a cut and his best result was T-9 in WGC-Mexico, where he led after 54 holes.
At one stage, soon after the Hero Indian Open, in which he played alongside the eventual winner, Matt Wallace in the final group, Sharma had five Top-10s in 10 starts in his Rookie Year.
But in 15 starts after that till he arrived for the DP World Tour Championships, his best finishes were T-14 at Volvo China, T-27 at Open de France and T-27 at Nedbank Challenge.