Notes: Bhatia has extra drive at DJ Junior; Pano still on top
Akshay Bhatia (Photo courtesy Chris King/DJ Junior)
Akshay Bhatia (Photo courtesy Chris King/DJ Junior)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Akshay Bhatia is a hometown kid this week at TPC Myrtle Beach – sort of. At the very least, he’s a fixture around here with a vested interest in this town and this tournament.

Bhatia, a Wake Forest, N.C., resident and the second-round leader at the Dustin Johnson Junior World Championship, is a student of Allen Terrell, director of coaching at the Dustin Johnson Golf School. (Bhatia also works with Southern California-based swing coach George Gankas.) The facility is just a hulk’s drive across the range from TPC Myrtle Beach. The fourth playing of this event coincided with the grand opening of a new DJ-monogrammed building where Terrell can continue to teach.

Even though he was the last man in the field this year, Bhatia has never missed this event. He’s also never won, but he could fix that on Sunday if he can hold on to the two-shot lead he has created with rounds of 69-68. Bhatia got to 7 under by playing his last six holes in 4 under.

“I’ve always wanted to win this tournament and the biggest reason I wanted to play was for Allen Terrell,” Bhatia said. “He puts all the time and effort toward me. It would just be great for us. It’s his home and if I could win it as his student, it would be great.”

Interestingly, Terrell is the one who is making sure Bhatia has to work for it, and that wasn’t lost on the student post-round.

“My coach sets up the pins here and he made them pretty challenging today,” he said with a smile.

Bhatia clearly had the tools necessary to attack them.

• • •

PACE SETTER: But for a single bogey Saturday at the par-4 15th, Alexa Pano’s scorecard is perfect at TPC Myrtle Beach. The 14-year-old might as well be playing a different course than the rest of the field. Back-to-back rounds of 3-under 69 have left Pano, the defending champion, with an eight-shot cushion entering the third and final round.

Pano cruised through a tricky setup on Saturday, navigating several tucked pins with pars and even birdies.

"I was hitting it super solid in the beginning and it carried over throughout the day," she said. "I was within 10 feet on every shot on the first four (holes)."

Pano is playing the event for the second time, and in five total rounds at this event, has always had at least a share of the lead.

• • •

ROAD TRIP: Shane Ffrench isn’t from here. The San Diego native likes to shake things up, see different kinds of courses and test himself on different kinds of grass, hence the cross-country trip to play the Dustin Johnson Junior for the second consecutive year.

Ffrench, a USC commit since the age of 14, is cruising around TPC Myrtle Beach with a mantra. He has logged rounds of 70-71 and sits in solo third.

“Swing without fear on every shot,” he recited post-round.

That proved difficult but doable in Round 2, but it’s a big reason that Ffrench is in contention with a round to play. At 3 under, he trails Bhatia by four shots. The margin could reasonably be half that, considering that Ffrench hung a par putt on the lip at No. 17 and horse-shoed a birdie putt at No. 18.

Sports psychologist Kevin Sverdurk, who works with the USC men’s golf team, put the line in Ffrench’s head and the pupil has dutifully followed it. Ffrench, a high-school junior, has been working with Sverdurk since late in 2018, and likes the new perspective. With a year and a half until he joins the Trojan roster, Ffrench is all process, which is to say he tries not to focus as much on wins and losses.

“We try not to do any kind of result goals, everything is process-based,” he said. “I want to be in the best shape when I get (to USC) because I know it’s going to be a big change.”

• • •

GUT FEELING: Nicholas Mathews started his week in Myrtle Beach with the junior-golf equivalent of a Monday qualifier. With his game feeling solid lately, he thought this might be the year to try a last-minute entry into the Dustin Johnson Junior. In that spirit, he entered the early-week 18-hole qualifier.

Mathews, a high-school junior from Mebane, N.C., had to fight his way through a five-for-one playoff after a 3-over 75 at TPC Myrtle Beach. He’s now 2-for-2 in playoffs in his career.

Mathews opened with a brilliant 2-under 70 on Friday that put him in the next-to-last group on Saturday – right beside top-ranked Bhatia. Mathews, a fellow left-hander, struggled to hold his game together, dropping difficult putts for back-to-back birdies at Nos. 7 and 8. An eleventh-hour quad on the water-lined 18th pushed Mathews’ score to 80, but he still made the 36-hole cut and is ready to rebound on Sunday.

Mathews hasn’t committed to a college yet but hopes to play Division I golf. He’s a student of renowned coach Chase Duncan, and also a student of his own numbers. Mathews’ theory is to have a good enough understanding of his own game and how it compares to a PGA Tour player’s to close the gap between himself and that level.

“That’s pretty much what I’ve been working on – just trying to get all my numbers closer to Tour average,” he said.

TPC Myrtle Beach provides a good litmus test in that quest.

• • •

NUMBERS TPC Myrtle Beach played almost two shots harder from the first to the second round. The boys field averaged 74.54 on Friday while that number jumped to 76.28 on Saturday. . . . The field recorded two eagles and 45 birdies on the barely reachable par-5 18th, giving the patrons in the rocking-chair lined clubhouse balcony something to cheer about all afternoon. . . . Xavier Marcoux, who is tied for fourth at 2 under, gets the “guts” award after making two eagles on Saturday – at Nos. 6 and 18 (both par 5s). In fact, Marcoux leads the field in both eagles made and par-5 scoring. He is 6 under on the long holes.

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ABOUT THE Dustin Johnson World Junior

Started in 2016 by the Dustin Johnson Foundation, the Dustin Johnson World Junior Championship is a 54- hole invitational event for Boys and Girls ages 13- 18. Those who do not meet the invitation criteria will have an opportunity to earn a spot via an 18-hole qualifier prior to the event.

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