Akshay Bhatia held onto win by a stroke
GRANITEVILLE, SC (April 21, 2018) - Less than 100 yards from the first tee at Sage Valley Golf Club sits a small chapel. That’s where Akshay Bhatia found himself before teeing off with a four-shot lead in Saturday’s final round of the Junior Invitational.
Sage Valley isn’t just a slice of golf heaven, it’s a few slices; a magnificent, grand-scale property that consistently wows those who set foot on it. Yet in the middle of all of it, Bhatia was able to escape for a few minutes of reflection.
“What a surreal moment I had there,” Bhatia said. “Just silence.”
Said Bhatia’s father, Sonny: “I think that really helped him subconsciously and he kept it together despite all the nerves.”
The nerves were there and Bhatia closed the 54-hole event with a 4-over 76. But it was still good enough for a one-shot victory over Frankie Capan as the 16-year-old Bhatia held on to win the gold jacket and become the eighth winner of what many consider to be the Masters of Junior Golf.
“It was obviously very tough out there today,” Bhatia said. “Coming down the stretch I was amped up, nervous. I kind of knew where everyone was.”
Bhatia had a shaky start with back-to-back bogeys to begin his round. After his fourth bogey of the day, at the par-4 11th, he saw his four-shot advantage disappear and suddenly he was tied for the lead with Sweden’s Ludvig Aberg at 3 under with Capan and Ricky Castillo each lurking at 2 under and 1 under, respectively.
“With one person out so far ahead anything can happen, and as we saw he came back,” Capan said. “Akshay, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he ended up 10 under today. He’s a really good player and fortunately for all of us he came back a few strokes.”
But Bhatia’s challengers failed to take advantage. Castillo bogeyed the par-3 12th and dropped shots at Nos. 16 an 17 coming in. Aberg played his last seven holes in 6 over, including making double bogeys at Nos. 12 and 18.
Capan made things interesting, birdieing the par-5 15th for his ninth straight birdie on a par-5 this week and posting impressive par saves on Nos. 16 and 17. But some ill-timed right misses off the tee and costly bogeys at Nos. 13 and 18 kept him from pulling off the comeback. He pounded a drive 340 yards at the par-4 18th, too, but his wedge shot spun off the left side of the green and Capan had almost no chance of getting up-and-down from there.
“I knew that if I kept giving myself some opportunities I’d hopefully be able to make a couple,” said Capan, an Alabama signee. “Really just wasn’t able to do that.”
This was just Capan’s second start in nine months. He took almost seven months off following last July’s U.S. Junior Amateur because of hip and back injuries – dehydration in his L4 and L5 vertebrae, and a right hip that was popping out of socket at the U.S. Junior.
Capan’s recovery included prolotherapy shots to build his cartilage around the injured areas, core and back muscle exercises and rest. He also has an appointment scheduled at the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., next week to check on the injuries.
“I’m really just grateful to be out here playing,” said Capan, who was T-4 in his return to action at the AJGA Simplify Boys Championship in February. “It feels good to be back. I’m not really at 100 percent yet, but I don’t think it’s affecting me that much. Honestly, it’s kind of been a blessing. I’ve been able to find a couple of other things in my swing; I’m turning my hips more and have been able to create more power.
“And sometimes when I’m playing with a little injury or something I play more within myself and just don’t try to push anything.”
He gave Bhatia quite the push Saturday at Sage Valley. But the Wake Forest, N.C., native didn’t break. He shook off losing his lead by birdieing the par-4 13th after hitting his drive into the right fairway bunker. He recovered to hit his approach to 12 feet and make the birdie. He added another birdie on the next hole, the difficult par-4 14th, and quickly saw his lead jump back up to three shots.
“I told myself all day that I’m still in control of this golf tournament no matter how many bogeys I made,” Bhatia said.
“Once I knew I had space, I knew I had it.”
Even a lipped-out 3-footer for par at the par-3 16th and a missed up-and-down par save after finding the right fairway bunker at the par-4 17th hole couldn’t shake Bhatia’s confidence. From the left side of the 18th fairway, Bhatia watched Capan bogey ahead of him. After hitting the middle of the green, Bhatia needed a three-putt to win. He left his first well short, the ball barely getting over a severe ridge. But the second one was lagged nicely and the third got Bhatia in the clubhouse at 2 under, one of just two scores under par for the week.
“It’s not a good feeling to three-putt the last,” Bhatia said, “but a win’s a win and I’m just so grateful for this.”
“This was a big test for him and he passed it,” said Sonny Bhatia, who ranked Saturday’s win up there with his son’s record-breaking victory at last summer’s Junior PGA Championship.
Akshay Bhatia will now turn his focus to next week’s pre-qualifier for the Wells Fargo Championship. But first he stood on Sage Valley’s 18th green, wearing a green jacket and holding one of the most coveted trophies in junior golf.
It wasn’t as quiet as the moment he had spent in the chapel just five hours earlier – applause, camera shutters clicking, junior golfers and their parents saying their goodbyes.
But it was just as surreal.