Akshay Bhatia (Golfweek photo)
By Garrett Johnston
Akshay Bhatia made his PGA Tour debut at this week’s Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort. It was a short week, considering that rounds of 74-72 left the 17-year-old three shots outside the cut line, but there were fun moments nonetheless.
Most notably, the former U.S. Junior Ryder Cup star got a loud Ryder Cup cheer from fans on Friday at the 12th hole. Fans began singing “Akshay, Akshay, Akshay, Akshay!” with the same rhythm that European Ryder Cup fans scream “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole!” in unison.
It resonated with the teenager.
“That was sick,” Bhatia said of the singing. “That was awesome. That was something I hope I will hear at the Ryder Cup in five, six years down the road.”
Earlier Friday morning, as the 2018 Junior PGA Championship and Sage Valley Invitational winner stepped to the first tee, he was greeted by loud cheers of “Let’s go, Akshay!” from his posse of 15 friends and family members.
For Akshay’s father Sonny, it was a special week watching his son compete at the highest level for the first time.
“I’m more happy for him than I am proud, because he’s worked so hard as a 17-year-old,” Bhatia said. “So much talk in the background of, “Is he good enough? Is he going to college? Is he not going to college?’ So much gossip and talk, but it’s positive because it makes his game relevant and I’m happy because he’s worked through all of that and he got the exemption here.”
Tournament director Tracy West was happy to grant the 17-year-old a sponsor’s exemption when he asked for one.
“We’re thrilled to have him here,” West said. “He’s so poised and a fun player for our fans to watch and cheer for, especially being so young.”
Allen Terrell, one of Bhatia’s swing coaches, also noted what a quality experience Valspar is for a player Bhatia’s age.
“How many other 17-year-old’s get to sing this story (playing a Tour event)?” Terrell said. “But I also think he’s figuring out how much one shot matters out here, especially (at Innisbrook), where everyone is kind of bunched up on the leaderboard.”
Bhatia hung at 2 over for much of Friday’s second round. He was 1 under on his round until he bogeyed Nos. 17 and 18 coming in.
Bhatia’s caddie this week was veteran Eric Bajas, who has caddied at the pro level for twice as long as his player has been alive. He has also worked for players like Bryce Molder and Moriya Jutanugarn, among others. On Bhatia’s bag, however, Bajas got a new experience. He had never before caddied for a player in his or her first professional start.
Did he find himself having to give a little more help to his player than normal?
“No, not really,” Bajas said. “I just say do what you always do whoever you’re working for. The thing is, I just wanted him to control his nerves. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low and he did good all week.”
Looking ahead to next month, Bhatia confirmed that he will defend his title at Sage Valley after trying to Monday qualify in a couple more PGA Tour events.
“Try Monday (qualifiers) and get back out here because this is the life I want to have,” Bhatia said.
In terms of Sage Valley, Bhatia is fired up for it.
“It’s going to be great. Sage is probably the best tournament I play all year and just the atmosphere there and to win there last year was great, so just to go back to where I’ve won will be cool.”
Bhatia also added the British Amateur in Dublin, Ireland, to his summer schedule for some links practice. It’s a smart move considering what’s at stake.
“Part of it is just playing links golf, and also the reward you get for (winning) that is the Masters invite and British Open,” Bhatia said, Sso as long as I can play the way I can play, I’ll have a good chance there and it will be good just to hang out overseas for a little bit.”
As for the rest of Bhatia’s competition schedule? According to Bhatia’s father, it looks like this:
Junior PGA Championship?
“We haven’t decided yet.”
U.S. Junior Amateur?
“Yes, he will be at that.”
The British Amateur and European Amateur are firm, and we might just see Bhatia at the St. Andrews Trophy, too.
“We’re going to go to Europe and it will be a three or four week trip. I was born in London, so I love it,” Sonny Bhatia said.
Given the quality of golf, something says Akshay will fall in love with it, too.