MEXICO CITY — Shubhankar Sharma held his nerve to the end and held a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Mexico Championship.
Now the 21-year-old from India has one last round to hold off a few of golf’s biggest names.
Sharma stretched his lead to as many as four shots Saturday at Chapultepec Golf Club until he started dropping a few shots late on the back nine. After clipping a tree and going into the bunker on the 18th, he holed a 15-foot par putt for a 2-under 69.
That left him 18 holes away from capping off his amazing rise. Just three months ago, Sharma had yet to win a tournament outside India’s developmental circuit, didn’t have a European Tour card and was No. 462 in the world. A victory in this World Golf Championship would be his third in his last eight starts and likely put him in the top 25.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 3, 2018
His biggest test might come from the names on the leaderboard.
Phil Mickelson played bogey-free for a 65 that will put him in the last group with Sharma and Tyrrell Hatton of England, who had a 64. Also two shots behind were Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello, who each had a 69.
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, the only two-time winner on the European Tour this year who leads the Race to Dubai, didn’t blink.
Even so, there was some emotion packed into those two short fist-pumps when his par putt dropped on the final hole.
He was at 13-under 200.
Mickelson, coming off three straight top 10s for the first time since 2009, is in his best position yet. His drivers aren’t as wild, he is making more key putts to keep the round going and his iron game is solid as ever.
“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.”
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 3, 2018
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.”
Hatton went out in 30 and kept a clean card on another warm day at 7,800 feet above sea level.
Pat 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.
Johnson made eagle on the par-5 sixth, but then traded birdies and bogeys the rest of the way until ending with a birdie to get in range.
Justin Thomas also has new life after setting the course record with a 62, breaking by one the mark Jordan Spieth set last year. Thomas didn’t figure out what was going on with his swing until a practice session Saturday morning. Even then, his goal was to get to 10 under by the end of the tournament.
“Got a pretty good jump-start on that,” said Thomas, who was at 9-under 204. “I may have to reset that goal a little bit.”
Spieth birdied three of his last four holes and was six 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 in Chandigarh, when he would stay up to watch the majors.
He still remembers not only Mickelson winning the British Open at Muirfield, but the 3-wood he hit onto the 17th green that led to his victory. He recalls studying for an exam all day on Monday in 2008 so he could stay up to watch Tiger Woods when the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Now he’s in the midst of these players, and he’s beating them.
Sunday is a final exam of another variety.