Akshay Bhatia (Photo courtesy Chris King/DJ Junior)
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Despite the fact that Akshay Bhatia has made his professional aspirations known – and also made it known that he’ll get there sooner rather than later – the 17-year-old has yet to make a PGA Tour start. That will change later this month, when Bhatia plays the Valspar Championship on a sponsor exemption.
It’s odd to hear a high-school junior say that with relief, but it makes sense given Bhatia’s track record of Monday qualifying attempts. Those early-week dog fights rarely make headlines, even though it might be the biggest grind of the week.
Bhatia has tried to qualify that way 12 times. He got within one shot at the RSM Classic and the Wyndham Championship in 2018. He also fought his way into a playoff for a Web.com Tour event but that’s where he fell.
“It’s such a bear,” he said. “You have 18 holes to hit 63 shots. You have to play so well, you can’t make any mistakes and everything has to go your way.”
Earlier this year, Bhatia failed to make it through a pre-qualifier for the Waste Management Phoenix Open only to fly back east, tee it up at the Jones Cup and win in a playoff when weather wiped the final round. For that effort, he earned a spot in this year’s RSM Classic at Sea Island Resort in coastal Georgia.
“Two starts is a bonus,” he said.
Bhatia’s game is that good
. He demonstrates that in every way – from the Tour-level crack that rings through the air at impact to a neat and clever short-game. His Saturday gallery at the Dustin Johnson Junior World Championship included Myrtle Beach locals and college coaches who weren’t even recruiting him.
With Valspar on the horizon, entering the Dustin Johnson World Junior just made sense. Bhatia had played the tournament each of the past three years and praised this year’s conditions at TPC Myrtle Beach as being the best – and perhaps the most difficult – in recent memory.
“I wanted to play in something,” he said of his late entry to the field. “…This course is just a really good test because you can mess up pretty easily out here.”
The path that Bhatia is navigating is fascinating because a teenager who is ready for Tour-level competition comes around so infrequently. Over the next year, Bhatia will play fewer junior events and more amateur events to prepare. In a podcast with Golf Digest
earlier this year, Bhatia laid out a detailed daily practice regimen that includesas much as two hours on the putting green, time on the range, 18 holes of golf and sometimes additional work on the range or on his own TrackMan.
Over the past year, Bhatia says his swing “has gotten cleaner and I can hit more shots now.” Bhatia works with famously quirky swing coach George Gankas along with Allen Terrell, the director of coaching at the Dustin Johnson Golf School right beside TPC Myrtle Beach.
He credits Terrell with his improved putting, even though he admits he didn’t want to expand his team at first. Bhatia’s father suggested they visit Terrell a few years ago during the Dustin Johnson event after picking up Terrell’s business card. The younger Bhatia was shocked at the level of productivity of the first lesson – he had to go back.
“He also doesn’t say any BS – straight-up answers, you have to own your own game,” Bhatia said in describing his work with Terrell. “That’s what I love about him, he just makes it simple. You own it, you do what you need to do. (He says), ‘If I’m going to teach you this, you have to go do it or it’s a waste of time for both of us.’”
Bhatia, who won four major junior events and finished runner-up in three more in 2018, is good at looking back at times when his game was firing and picking out what was working and what wasn’t. Experiences change him, and his short forays into Tour world, where everything is about scoring, have resulted in a new perspective.
“At the end of the day you just have to realize that even if you miss it, you can still make par, and that’s taught me a lot because I can put myself in bad spots but I can still make par,” he said. “That’s kind of what Mondays are about.”
What’s junior golf about? It depends on who you ask.
Bhatia’s opponents were keenly aware of where he was on the course on Saturday – the next-to-last group – and how deep he had gotten under par. A handful of players stood off the 18th green waiting for him to finish mid-afternoon. Pins were set dauntingly on the edges of several water-surrounded greens on Saturday, including at No. 17. Bhatia made the only birdie there among the 10 players in the final three groups.
“Of course he did,” one player noted beside the 18th green – as Bhatia got up and down from under a tree for one last birdie and a second-round 68.
In recent years, much has been made of the heightened level of junior competition and how it prepares up-and-coming players for a professional career. That was perhaps most obvious in the insanely talented high school class of 2011, which included Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, among others.
They played with each other week in and week out on the junior circuit, tried to beat each other and devised post-round competitions to keep practice interesting.
“It does push you to play good golf,” Bhatia said of his peers. “You can’t come out playing sloppy to win.”
Bhatia will miss junior-golf the most for the fun. After a long day on the course, TPC Myrtle Beach’s practice facilities were packed late afternoon, and that’s a familiar scene at this level.
And so is this line that rang out from a corner of the range: “Hey Shay, long-drive contest?”