Akshay Bhatia, 17, full of swagger and set for PGA Tour debut at Valspar
At the Walker Cup practice session in December, U.S. captain Nathaniel Crosby left junior golfer Akshay Bhatia with one final piece of advice ahead of the Jones Cup Invitational in late January.
“He said, ‘You better be in the final group on Sunday so I don’t have to chase you around,’ ” Bhatia recalled.
Bhatia, 17, did better than that. He defeated Georgia sophomore Davis Thompson on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff at Ocean Forest Golf Club on St. Simons Island, Ga., after the final round was canceled due to rain.
“I’m just sorry he ended up driving five hours to watch me play one hole,” Bhatia said of Crosby’s trip.
The victory at one of amateur golf’s most prestigious invitationals should shoot Bhatia, Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked junior and the reigning AJGA player of the year, even higher on Crosby’s “watch list” for the Walker Cup, which will be played Sept. 7-8 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.
“Oh my gosh, it would be a dream come true,” Bhatia of Wake Forest, N.C., said of a chance to represent the 10-man U.S. side. “You just don’t get that opportunity too many times. Just to be part of the practice session was unreal.”
But Bhatia was even more overcome by the fact that joining a prestigious list of Jones Cup champions – including Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Beau Hossler – also earned him a berth in the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic this fall.
“I’ve worked so hard, and that’s one of my dreams to play a PGA Tour event while still in high school,” Bhatia said.
Bhatia won’t have to wait much longer to fulfill his dream of playing in a PGA Tour event. Bhatia tells Golfweek he has accepted a sponsorship exemption into the Valspar Championship on March 21-24 at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Bhatia has played in Thursday and Monday PGA Tour Qualifiers, further confirmation that he intends to skip college and turn professional in January when he turns 18.
“It’s made me stronger mentally,” Bhatia said of trying to earn one of four available spots at qualifying. “Once I get through one, I think I’ll make a bunch more. I’m just lacking experience.”
He showed he’s more than capable of holding his own against the game’s top amateurs. Beating a field consisting of top collegians at the Jones Cup in his first start back after nursing a back injury suffered in late November during the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions helps validate Bhatia’s decision to forgo college.
As much as Bhatia would like to make the Walker Cup team – and he plans to play the European and British Amateurs this summer in preparation for links golf – he sees it merely as a stop along his journey to making the PGA Tour. He has tunnel vision, his eyes locked in on a pro golf career.
George Gankas, one of his team of instructors, described Bhatia as mature beyond his years and noted a surge in his confidence and self-belief. Gankas recounted a telling conversation he had with Bhatia at the U.S. Amateur in August.
“He said, ‘I guess I have to start acting like ‘The Man’ because I’m pretty much ‘The Man’ among the juniors,’ ” Gankas said. “Since that point, his walk is different, the way he talks is different and the way he carries himself is different. It’s not in a cocky way; he’s just a more confident player.
“He’ll win a tournament and ask, ‘What needs to be better?’ How many kids his age do that? He’s trying to figure a way to get better to win by more.”
Bhatia, who crushed the field at the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic by 10 strokes in June, has a home putting studio and a TrackMan, and practices at TPC Wakefield playing two-ball, best-ball and from the front tees to ingrain shooting low scores and two-ball, worst ball and dropping a ball behind trouble (such as a patch of trees) from a par-3 distance away and trying to make no worse than par as games to improve his scrambling skills. He is a lanky lefty weighing only 129 pounds, but he has the flexibility of Gumby.
“Every time I put him on my Instagram everyone goes, ‘Eat a cheeseburger, dude!’” Gankas said. “He says he’s trying to get fat, but he can’t do it.”
Bhatia may be thin as a rail, but pound-for-pound he’s maximizing his swing speed, averaging 119 mph, and recently sent Gankas a video where he hit 124.8 mph.
“I couldn’t even believe it,” said Bhatia, who credits the gain in velocity to his workouts and is striving for his swing speed and weight to equal the same figure.
As for his upcoming PGA Tour debut, he already arranged to play a practice round with Spaniard Jon Rahm and has his sights set on meeting Australian Jason Day, another of his heroes. And Bhatia’s not shy about how he might do. When asked if he thought he could win, he said, “I don’t see why not. As long as I can treat it like it’s just another event. It’s all about mindset, really.”