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Five years ago, shortly before turning 21, Sharmila Nicollet became the youngest Indian woman to qualify for the Ladies European Tour. The accomplishment resonated in her native country, which does not have much of a golfing tradition, particularly for women. Her popularity soon soared to heights usually reserved for star cricket players.
Since then, Nicollet has had injuries to her wrist, toes and back that have hindered her professional career. She is not among the 1,246 women included in the world golf rankings. Still, she has built a following that few athletes with her credentials can match. Nicollet, 26, has more than 359,000 followers on Twitter and more than 110,000 on Instagram.
Nicollet’s social media presence helped her gain entrance into this weekend’s ShopRite LPGA Classic at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway, N.J. — where she opened with a round of five-over-par 76. It’s her first time competing in a professional tournament in the United States.
Tournament organizers decided to award one of its sponsor exemptions via a poll conducted on Twitter during the first week of May. They selected the four players for the poll — Nicollet, Blair O’Neal, Carly Booth and Susana Benavides — based on data from MVPindex, a company that tracks sports figures’ and entertainers’ social media followings. Shawn Spieth, the father of the PGA Tour player Jordan Spieth, is a co-founder of MVPindex.
When Nicollet found out about the contest, she spread the word to her fans and won with 39 per cent of the votes. Although many praised the poll as a clever and innovative idea, Nicollet received some feedback questioning whether she deserved a spot in the field considering her recent lacklustre results.
Nicollet has played in only two LPGA Tour events, missing the cut at the 2011 and 2012 Evian Masters tournaments in France. She has competed in 64 Ladies European Tour events, but has never finished in the top 10 and has not made a cut since December 2014. Because of her injuries and on-course struggles, she participated in only one Ladies European Tour tournament last year, and none so far this year.
“Some people are a bit opinionated about this whole thing that’s going on,” Nicollet said. “But I feel if they were given the same opportunity, anyone would seize it. It’s a sponsor exemption. It’s not depriving anybody else of her spot. There’s always going to be some people here and there who have something to say about it, but on a whole I think it’s been a great positive.”
Tim Erensen, the tournament’s executive director, said the tour allowed sponsor exemptions to three players. Officials gave one spot to Natalie Gulbis, a popular former star, and another to veteran Alison Walshe, who won a qualifier on Sunday.
Erensen said he hoped the Twitter poll for the third would attract 5,000 to 10,000 votes and reach 10 million to 15 million Twitter accounts. The contest exceeded those expectations, generating nearly 28,000 votes, reaching more than 100 million Twitter accounts and gaining the attention of fans, athletes and celebrities. When the poll was announced May 1, actor Dwayne Johnson encouraged his 11.3 million Twitter followers to vote for Booth, who finished third behind Nicollet and O’Neal.
“There was lots of discussion about: Was it the right thing to do? Was it the wrong thing to do?” Erensen said. “Our belief was, it was an overwhelming success just getting people talking about the women’s game and talking about our sponsor exemptions.”
He added: “We need to grow the game. The game is stale. We need to find ways to be creative in drawing new interest in the game. If we can draw a new, younger generation from a social media perspective, we thought it was a pretty cool way to get some new folks introduced to the game.”
The poll also helped fans in the U.S. learn more about Nicollet, a former competitive swimmer who began playing golf at 11. Only a few Indians have played professional golf, but it did not deter Nicollet from deciding to be home-schooled after 10th grade so she could pursue the sport. When she was 17, she tied for 28th at the Junior World Golf Championships near San Diego. Duke, Purdue and other universities showed interest in enrolling her, but she decided to turn professional at 18.
Although Nicollet has never broken through on the Ladies European Tour or the LPGA Tour, she has had some success on the small, India-based Hero Women’s Professional Golf Tour. Most tournaments there have fewer than 20 participants, but she placed in the top 10 of the money list for seven consecutive years before finishing 12th last year. This year, she is seventh on the list.
Nicollet arrived in New Jersey last week to get accustomed to the weather and the 9.5-hour time difference from her hometown, Bangalore. It is her first time in the U.S. since last August, when she was recovering from a toe injury on her right foot and failed to make it past the first stage of the LPGA qualifying school.
Now healthy, Nicollet is determined to have a better showing. She has been working on her game at the Zion Hills golf course in Bangalore, where she lives in a house at the sixth hole. She also recently started meeting with Irina Singh, a former professional golfer who is now a sports psychologist based in India.
“I was a little down because of my injuries, but I’ve tasted winning many times,” Nicollet said. “It’s a proud feeling. I just hope to kick-start that and get it happening outside India. I’m proud to be here.”