Sharma returns to action in Japan after a month-long break

Ernie Els (left)) – Pic: Getty Images and Shubhankar Sharma (File pic)

Omitama, Japan, April 19: Shubhankar Sharma returns to action after a month’s rest as he tees up at the ISPS HANDA Championship, which gets underway Thursday at the PGM Ishioka Golf Club in Ibaraki prefecture. The event is the first DP World Tour event to be co-sanctioned with the JGTO in Japan.

Sharma has been given a marquee group as he is grouped with the legend Shingo Katayama, who turned 50 this January, and the Danish veteran Soren Kjeldsen. Katayama, a five-time winner of the Japan Tour Order of Merit, has won as many 34 titles in his career, 31 of which have been on the Japan Tour.

Katayama’s last win came in 2017 and interestingly, it was the same sponsor, ISPS Handa, who then supported a match play event, won by Katayama.

Sharma who has missed three cuts in last four – in between he was T-13 at his home event, the Hero Indian Open – is looking to recover the form that saw him finish T-7 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at the start of the year.

Sharma, who was 29th in the DP World Tour Rankings in 2022, is already assured of a start in the Open at the Royal Liverpool at Hoylake.

Meanwhile, the Japanese players understand the opportunity is there for the taking as this week’s winner is set to earn a two-year exemption to compete on the European flagship circuit.

One of those looking to seize the opportunity of playing in a DP World Tour event with a home-ground advantage is Rikuya Hoshino. Hoshino is currently holding a conditional status on the DP World Tour by virtue of being the top three finishers of last season’s JGTO Money Rankings, but he wants to improve on it.

“This is important for me to play in this event and I’m so happy that I can play the course that I know well so I would like to play well and try to win,” said Hoshino,” who’s now ranked 144th on the Race to Dubai.

The next generation of European stars are also looking forward to teeing it up at the event.

Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre excited to be visiting a new location as he returns to action for the first time since the Magical Kenya Open presented by Absa.

Meanwhile Rasmus Højgaard is relishing his first event in Japan since representing Denmark in the Olympic Games in 2021, and his return to action for the first time since February following a shoulder injury.

There is also a strong contingent of Japanese golfers are in the field in Omitama, as the event builds on the recently announced partnership between the DP World Tour, PGA TOUR and JGTO, that will see the top three players on the JGTO Order of Merit earn membership onto the DP World Tour each season.

The 2022 JGTO Order of Merit winner Kazuki Higa tees it up on the back of his debut Masters appearance, alongside current leader Shugo Imahira and the top two Japanese players in the Race to Dubai Rankings in Partnership with Rolex – Masahiro Kawamura and Ryo Hisatsune.

All eyes will be on the South African legend Ernie Els will be aiming to roll the years as he seeks a third career win in Japan.

At 53, the four-time Major winner Els showed he has plenty of gas left in the tank with a couple of impressive results of late, most notably winning the Hoag Classic on the PGA Tour Champions last month for the 76th win of his professional career.

Els will certainly look to keep the momentum going when he makes a welcome return to the Land of Rising Sun – after a lapse of 15 years – to compete in the ISPS HANDA Championship. Despite only a handful of appearances, Japan is a fine hunting ground for Els.

It was back in 1993 that Els had won the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament at the Phoenix Country Club in Miyazaki for his maiden win outside of the Sunshine Tour, and it turned out to be a huge stepping stone. He went on to win the US Open the following year.

Els would win for a second time in Japan in 2001, lifting the World Cup with Retief Goosen following a thrilling four-way playoff duel at the Taiheiyo Club with Denmark, United States and New Zealand, which comprised big names like Tiger Woods and Thomas Bjorn, who is also in the field this week.

Els said he can never forget the day he won in Miyazaki, which he likened to playing in a massive event of Masters Tournament stature.

“1993 was a big year for me. I had good finishes in the US Open (T7) and The Open (T7). Coming here (in Miyazaki) it almost felt like we were in Augusta” recalled Els, who’s ISPS HANDA ambassador.

“There were a lot of people, (Masashi) ‘Jumbo’ Ozaki was a huge star at that time, Isao (Aoki)-san and Tom Watson were playing as well.

The 15-time DP World Tour winner, Bjorn, too has fond memories in Japan having been crowned winner twice at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament.

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