Akshay Bhatia, 17, full of swagger and set for PGA Tour debut at Valspar
At the Walker Cup practice session in December, U.S. captain Nathaniel Crosby left junior golfer Akshay Bhatia with one final piece of advice ahead of the Jones Cup Invitational in late January.
“He said, ‘You better be in the final group on Sunday so I don’t have to chase you around,’ ” Bhatia recalled.
Bhatia, 17, did better than that. He defeated Georgia sophomore Davis Thompson on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff at Ocean Forest Golf Club on St. Simons Island, Ga., after the final round was canceled due to rain.
“I’m just sorry he ended up driving five hours to watch me play one hole,” Bhatia said of Crosby’s trip.
The victory at one of amateur golf’s most prestigious invitationals should shoot Bhatia, Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked junior and the reigning AJGA player of the year, even higher on Crosby’s “watch list” for the Walker Cup, which will be played Sept. 7-8 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.
“Oh my gosh, it would be a dream come true,” Bhatia of Wake Forest, N.C., said of a chance to represent the 10-man U.S. side. “You just don’t get that opportunity too many times. Just to be part of the practice session was unreal.”
But Bhatia was even more overcome by the fact that joining a prestigious list of Jones Cup champions – including Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Beau Hossler – also earned him a berth in the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic this fall.
“I’ve worked so hard, and that’s one of my dreams to play a PGA Tour event while still in high school,” Bhatia said.
Bhatia won’t have to wait much longer to fulfill his dream of playing in a PGA Tour event. Bhatia tells Golfweek he has accepted a sponsorship exemption into the Valspar Championship on March 21-24 at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Bhatia has played in Thursday and Monday PGA Tour Qualifiers, further confirmation that he intends to skip college and turn professional in January when he turns 18.
“It’s made me stronger mentally,” Bhatia said of trying to earn one of four available spots at qualifying. “Once I get through one, I think I’ll make a bunch more. I’m just lacking experience.”
He showed he’s more than capable of holding his own against the game’s top amateurs. Beating a field consisting of top collegians at the Jones Cup in his first start back after nursing a back injury suffered in late November during the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions helps validate Bhatia’s decision to forgo college.
As much as Bhatia would like to make the Walker Cup team – and he plans to play the European and British Amateurs this summer in preparation for links golf – he sees it merely as a stop along his journey to making the PGA Tour. He has tunnel vision, his eyes locked in on a pro golf career.
George Gankas, one of his team of instructors, described Bhatia as mature beyond his years and noted a surge in his confidence and self-belief. Gankas recounted a telling conversation he had with Bhatia at the U.S. Amateur in August.
“He said, ‘I guess I have to start acting like ‘The Man’ because I’m pretty much ‘The Man’ among the juniors,’ ” Gankas said. “Since that point, his walk is different, the way he talks is different and the way he carries himself is different. It’s not in a cocky way; he’s just a more confident player.
“He’ll win a tournament and ask, ‘What needs to be better?’ How many kids his age do that? He’s trying to figure a way to get better to win by more.”
Bhatia, who crushed the field at the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic by 10 strokes in June, has a home putting studio and a TrackMan, and practices at TPC Wakefield playing two-ball, best-ball and from the front tees to ingrain shooting low scores and two-ball, worst ball and dropping a ball behind trouble (such as a patch of trees) from a par-3 distance away and trying to make no worse than par as games to improve his scrambling skills. He is a lanky lefty weighing only 129 pounds, but he has the flexibility of Gumby.
“Every time I put him on my Instagram everyone goes, ‘Eat a cheeseburger, dude!’” Gankas said. “He says he’s trying to get fat, but he can’t do it.”
Bhatia may be thin as a rail, but pound-for-pound he’s maximizing his swing speed, averaging 119 mph, and recently sent Gankas a video where he hit 124.8 mph.
“I couldn’t even believe it,” said Bhatia, who credits the gain in velocity to his workouts and is striving for his swing speed and weight to equal the same figure.
As for his upcoming PGA Tour debut, he already arranged to play a practice round with Spaniard Jon Rahm and has his sights set on meeting Australian Jason Day, another of his heroes. And Bhatia’s not shy about how he might do. When asked if he thought he could win, he said, “I don’t see why not. As long as I can treat it like it’s just another event. It’s all about mindset, really.”
You say you can drive it 300 yards, but the last time you did it the hole was downhill, downwind and the ball caromed off the cartpath. You say you shoot in the low 80s, but you haven’t carded an 85 or better without two mulligans and a few generous gimme putts in about four years. When the question about what tees to play is asked, you’re already walking back to the blues or blacks. See where this is going? When it comes to this game, many golfers aren’t exactly honest about their current abilities—especially when assessing their next shot.
A common mental block is how best to play a dogleg hole with real trouble on either side of the fairway, says instructor Sean Foley.
“The ball tails off to the right for most of the golfers I see, so does it make any sense for them to stand on the tee box of a dogleg-left hole and try to curve their drive in that direction? No, but a lot of times they still try,” says Foley, a Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher. “What they should be doing is thinking of how to play the hole to the best of their abilities. In many cases, that means taking a shorter club, one that doesn’t peel off to the right as much, and just getting something out in the fairway.
“The reality is, sometimes the best you can do is give yourself a chance at a one-putt par. You have to accept that your game isn’t designed for certain holes, so your planning should change from How do I get home in regulation? to How do I avoid making double bogey?“
That’s good advice, says sport psychologist Bob Rotella. Too often a visually intimidating hole, one that looks like it necessitates a specific type of drive, can cause golfers to divert from their strengths. Bad move.
“Mentally, you’ve got to stick with your game. Don’t let the shape of a hole solely dictate your strategy,” he says. “I wouldn’t try to hit a shot I didn’t know or usually play. If a driver doesn’t fit the hole, hit a 3-wood. If a 3-wood doesn’t fit, hit a hybrid, and so on. Do whatever it takes to put the ball in play. But be clear and commit to whatever shot you decide.”
If you can’t curve the ball to match the hole’s shape, another option is to use driver, but play for the “best miss,” says Hall of Fame golfer Tom Watson. If you analyze a hole carefully, that miss should be evident.
“When curving the ball away from the dogleg, the fairway becomes a smaller target,” Watson says. “The golfer must then think about where it’s best to miss the fairway, and this involves a lot of criteria such as length of the rough, where the flagstick is located, etc. For example, shortening the hole by missing in the interior rough sometimes can be a good option when planning your tee shot, but not on Pine Valley’s par-4 sixth, the hole you see here.”
If you’re skilled enough to be able to shape your tee shot with the dogleg, then consider how much of it you want to take on, Watson says. An accurate distance measurement to the part of the fairway you want to hit is key, but so is that whole thing about being honest with yourself.
“Knowing how far you have to carry the ball to clear a dogleg’s interior rough or interior bunker is not usually thought about by most golfers, but it’s critical,” Watson says. “That being said, most golfers don’t know how far they carry the ball with a driver, which is important in deciding the line to take when cutting the corner on a dogleg.”
That’s why it’s best to be generous with your target line, Foley says.
“If it’s a 200-yard carry and your best drives carry about 210 yards, you probably want to take a less risky route,” Foley says. “Better to be farther back in the fairway than trying to recover from being too aggressive with your line. The penalty for not making it on a dogleg is usually pretty severe.”