You can catch the full interview with Sharmila Nicollet on next week's episode of GOLF Live, Tuesday, June 6th.
Sharmila Nicollet has more than 360,000 Twitter followers. She has many of them to thank when she tees off at the ShopRite LPGA Classic this week.
The 26-year-old from Bangalore, India, won a Twitter poll last month to earn the final sponsor invite for the three-day tournament at the Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club in Galloway, N.J. Nicollet grabbed 39% of the vote to beat out Blair O'Neal, Carly Booth and Susana Benavides.
"I'm very proud to be here," Nicollet told GOLF.com following a practice round this week. "A lot of Indians are very curious and very excited to know what's happening with this Twitter thing. It's created a lot of hype in the country."
The contest created a lot of hype here too, as fans and media debated the practicality and fairness of hosting what was essentially a popularity contest to determine the final spot in a high-profile LPGA event. Some lauded the decision to use social media to promote the event and the tour; others saw it as a cheap way to emphasize looks and social following instead of their golf ability.
Nicollet isn't letting the naysayers distract her.
"Being given an opportunity to play at the highest level, especially this tournament, if any of those critics were given the opportunity, they would take it," she said. "I'm not denying any player their position or spot because this is a sponsor exemption. I'm following my dream. I want to be given opportunities to do my best and that's what I did. You can't say anything about the criticism, you just have to take it in the right spirit and try and ignore it."
Nicollet landed in the U.S. on May 22, one week before the tournament, and has been practicing on the tournament course and shaking off the jet lag. On a rainy Tuesday before the tournament, she was spotted on the range, course, short game area and putting green, even in a downpour.
Nicollet was a state-level swimmer in India — she's a former national sub-junior swimming champ with more than 72 medals — and played basketball and tennis recreationally growing up. It wasn't until she was 11 that she tried golf in local summer camps, falling quickly in love and winning her first tournament at age 15. Nicollet turned professional in 2009 and was the youngest Indian golfer to qualify for the Ladies European Tour. She has also notched 11 wins on the Women's Golf Association of India.
Golf is having a moment in her country. With Anirban Lahiri and SSP Chawrasia competing on the PGA and European Tours, and overnight Olympic sensation Aditi Ashok qualifying for the LPGA tour as a rookie this year, Indian golf is gaining traction.
"It's very inspiring to the youngsters to take it up as an option, with cricket being such a religion in the country," Nicollet said. (Ashok is also in the field this week.) "It's also the first time there are two Indians playing in an LPGA event. That itself is huge in India. I feel it's going to inspire a lot more girls to come out here."
Nicollet said that she loves golf because of the challenge, and for how it teaches her how about herself. She'll no doubt learn a lot this week in her LPGA debut, and she hopes to return to the U.S. tour after playing more tournaments in Asia and on the LET. Despite her extensive use of Twitter and Instagram to promote herself and the game — she's been tweeting this journey regularly — don't let the 140-character diary logs distract you.
"I'm a golfer first, a golfer second and a golfer always," Nicollet said. "This is where I want to be. I want to belong here, and I'm going to work really hard towards that in the next few months."