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Golf’s next cultural phenomenon will not be American

And he may be at the 2018 Masters.

The Masters - Round One Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

If you’re of the ilk that likes to criticize the soft European and Asian tours, and how the Official World Golf Ranking does tend to overrated players based outside the United States, it’s understandable you might be miffed about Augusta National’s choice to extend a special Masters invitation to Shubhankar Sharma.

Never heard of Sharma? Not shocking! American golf media is insular as hell, and we don’t get near enough coverage from the European and Asian tours. Sharma, a 21-year-old Indian phenom who is affectionately known as Shub, is leading the European Order of Merit. He’s won twice since the start of the Euro Tour season in South Africa and Malaysia. He’s taken final-round leads into both the WGC-Mexico Championship and Indian Open. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about Sharma’s game — he’s a remarkably consistent ballstriker, doesn’t drive it particularly far, his swing looks Zach Johnsonish — but perhaps that’s part of his charm. His father is a delight. Oh, and yeah, here he is in a Asian Tour video, stating that he knows he will make it to world No. 1 at some point.

Despite the quiet swagger, no, he didn’t earn one of the historical Masters exemptions. Fred Ridley just went ahead and invited the youngster here anyway after his near-miss performance in Mexico City. Sharma’s in this Masters’ field because Augusta knows what we’re talking about here, they’re well aware of the stakes on the line for the game of golf in the future. India represent’s one of golf’s final frontiers, a nation of a billion people where golf’s growth opportunity is immense. The nation certainly has had quality players come from there before — Anirban Lahiri, Arjun Atwal, and Jeev Milkha Singh are the names that come to mind. But a nation where a majority of golf courses are still confined to military bases still hasn’t ever seen a top-flight star, and certainly not one with the prodigal upside of Sharma. A 21-year-old Indian man winning the Masters has the potential to be an earth-shaking, ground-breaking, money-producing boon for the sport.

Yet, somehow, Sharma — with the millions and millions who will be watching back home in India during pre-breakfast hours — won’t even have the biggest upside for a college-aged pro hailing from a completely raw golf nation with over a billion people. That honor’s reserved for China’s Haotong Li.

Li’s been on the scene a bit longer, but he’s still just one year Sharma’s senior at age 22. He won his first European Tour event three years ago in 2015 as a teenager, and burst fully into the international golf community’s consciousness with a third-place finish at last year’s Open Championship. That result seemed, and still seems, like it might be a springboard to the big time. Li already went toe-to-toe with Rory McIlroy in Dubai earlier in the season, and took home a tournament scoring record and his second career Euro Tour win in the process.

Omega Dubai Desert Classic - Day Four
Haotong Li after edging Rory McIlroy in Dubai this year.
Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Li’s home nation of China is the world’s most populous nation, and it doesn’t even have 10 percent of India’s still relatively light golf success. That will happen when, you know, the entire sport was banned as recently as 1979. This tidbit on how Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping, and Robert Trent Jones began talks that brought the sport back to China is, well, something:

It was January 1979, and President Jimmy Carter welcomed Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on a historic trip to the United States. Deng came seeking U.S. help to open China’s economy, which had been ravaged by decades of Mao’s violent political campaigns. But if American executives were to invest in China, they would need to travel there. And if they were to travel there, they would need a golf course.

At a stop in Seattle, President Carter introduced Deng to Robert Trent Jones Jr., the world’s top golf course architect. “He brightened up and said, ‘I like sports!’ “ remembers Jones of his meeting with the Chinese leader. “He said, ‘What is golf?’ And I said, ‘It’s a small ball hit over a big field into a hole, and people gamble about it and they buy each other drinks.’ He said, ‘Oh perfect, the Chinese will love it!’ “

Neither Sharma or Li are favorites to win this week — both are still young, sometimes raw players who have very limited starts in the U.S., let alone at Augusta. But it’s not far-fetched to see either in contention come Sunday. Sharma led his first ever WGC after 54 holes less than a month ago. Li already has a big win this year and a major championship podium finish. If you’re looking to rank the winning options for this week that are Best For The Game Of Golf, Sharma and Li are squarely 2A and 2B right behind Tiger Woods himself.

If there’s something for a final frontier for the game of golf, it’s the world’s two most populous nations — China and India. Other sports know the multi-sided benefits of gaining a real foothold in those two countries. Altruists see an opportunity to increase diversity and expand the benefits the sport can provide to a wider audience. Capitalists see, well, comically large Brinks trucks full of cash. Ask the NBA what the opportunities are for marketing and sales once your sport really latches on in China, for example. Or perhaps ask why Nike recently inked Sharma to a shirt deal ahead of the Masters. Apparel company higher-ups may be many things, but they’re not stupid.

Of course, many of the problems that plague the American game will still be problems in both China and India, even if Sharma and Li succeed at the highest levels. Both China and India face wide income gaps between the upper and lower classes, and have population densities that far exceed those in the U.S., meaning land for courses is scarce. Xi Jinping’s still waging a war against the sport as Mao had done decades prior, shuttering 110 courses across China just last year for reasons ranging from corruption to being too close to a water reservoir. It all stems from a Communist Party crackdown on party leaders and the not-untrue belief that golf is a sport for the bourgeoisie. If you would like to seize all means production or just listen to lots of Malcolm Gladwell podcasts, such a policy decision pleases you. Here is where I tell you that Karl Marx, allegedly, played golf, for whatever that may be worth.

Merits of whether golf has a place in the role of an ideal society aside, this is the whole damn point. Jordan Spieth’s rise to stardom has produced a few more Under Armour hats and AT&T ads, it has not provoked a possible political crisis among the dominant governing party of the world’s most populous nation. Li could do that. He won’t be a first-time major winner in a sport-crazed nation yearning for major international success. Sharma could be that.

Neither will save golf alone, neither will flip nations with significant hurdles in the way to leading golf nations overnight. But if you’re searching for the type of stars that could buoy the future of the sport, expand your horizons, widen your map. The game’s next big cultural phenomenon will likely not be an American.

Could it be Sharma or Li? If either slide on a green jacket on Sunday, we’ll find out in short order.