Akshay Bhatia prepares to take his game to the next level
McConnell Golf Scholar Akshay Bhatia’s storybook reign as junior golf’s dominant superstar is nearing an end. But those following the career of the lanky 17-year-old from Wake Forest sporting square-frame glasses, precocious calm under pressure and prodigious length know that for Bhatia, the end of one era undoubtedly signifies the start of another.
With a champion’s supreme confidence, Bhatia announced on the first day of recruiting that he plans to forgo college and turn professional when he turns 18 — adding that his goal is to be the world’s No. 1 player by 2030. This summer, Bhatia said he plans to continue entering Monday qualifying at a handful of PGA Tour and Web.com Tour events.
“I just want to be out there on tour and I know I have the game to do it,” he said. “If I get out there and perform, it’ll take care of itself.”
The 6-foot, 125-pound Bhatia took online classes during high school under the tutelage of his parents, Sunil and Renu. At the same time, he compiled one of the most impressive junior golf resumes in recent memory.
The first-ever back-to-back Boys Junior PGA Champion and highest-ranked member of the 2018 Boys U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team, Bhatia won the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley and the AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic, while also representing his country in the Youth Olympics.
Last year’s AJGA Rolex Junior Player of the Year, Bhatia advanced to match play at the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball with partner and CC Wakefield Plantation member Grayson Wotnosky. He was also a member of the inaugural U.S. Presidents Cup team.
But there remains one final, amateur box left to check. In August, Bhatia will almost assuredly be selected as the first junior to make the U.S. Walker Cup team since 2011, when Jordan Spieth and Patrick Rodgers both made the squad before beginning their college careers.
A biennial competition pitting 12-man teams from the U.S. against Great Britain and Ireland — and arguably amateur golf’s most significant event — this year’s Walker Cup will be contested Sept. 7-8 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.
In December, Bhatia was one of 16 prospective team members invited by U.S. Team Captain Nathaniel Crosby to attend the Walker Cup practice session. Bhatia was the first junior golfer to be invited since Jim Liu in 2012.
If he makes the team, Bhatia will be the youngest U.S. Walker Cup player ever. “To represent your country amps you up,” he said. “If I can be one of those guys to contribute to this team and win it for Captain Crosby, it would mean the world to me. It’s the biggest event as an amateur.”
In March, Bhatia made his PGA Tour debut at the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla. He was invited to play on a sponsor exemption, but missed the cut by three strokes.
After frequenting Monday qualifiers last year, Bhatia got through one for the first time in April to earn his debut Web.com Tour start at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Championship in Prattville, Ala. Bhatia made the most of his opportunity by making the cut at the rain-delayed event.
“Anytime I can step up and play against pros, guys who have been on the tour, it’s great,” Bhatia said. “I get a little taste of it before I actually turn pro. It’s cool.”
A first-round 73 left Bhatia outside the top 100, but he bounced back in round two with a two-under 70, moving into a tie for 40th and good enough to advance to Saturday play. Bhatia had the benefit of playing with Davis Riley, a former Alabama All-American now in his first year as a pro.“I asked him about college. ‘How was it? ’The decision to turn pro now versus after you graduate,” Bhatia said. “It was fun because he’s in my age division, sort of. He kind of understands my language.”
As he prepares for the future, Bhatia said he would never forget his junior golf experience, and the impact he has made on the game and those around him.
“It’s been great,” he said. “A lot of people look up to me and that’s something I do not take for granted. It’s self-belief, I don’t care if I’m ranked 20th or first or whatever, I’m still going to believe I’m number one. That’s the mindset my coach and I have tried to work on.”
Bhatia’s coach, Chase Duncan, said there is something different about his star pupil.
“The best way I can describe it, you hear a lot of positive self-talk, a lot of clichés, a lot of saying the right things; but he’s been so focused, so tunnel-visioned about what he’s doing, and he’s winning these tournaments by some big margins,”Duncan said. “I realize how ridiculously bold and outlandish this is, but I would absolutely bet on him. I think he’ll end up being the No. 1 player in the world.”