ST. ALBANS, Mo. – Akshay Bhatia knew there was little chance his third round at the 42nd Boys Junior PGA Championship would be as sensational as his 61 the day before. And it wasn’t. But the 3-under-par 69 he posted over the Lewis and Clark Course at the Country Club of St. Albans on Wednesday enabled him to remain atop the leaderboard after 54 holes.
With a championship-record 199, Bhatia, at 17 under par, leads by two over Daulet Tuleubayev, by way of Kazakhstan and Cupertino, Calif., whose 6-under-par 66 was the best round of the day. Trent Phillips of Inman, S.C., also shot 66 to move into a tie for third at 13 under par, four strokes back, with Reid Davenport (68) of Austin, Texas. It’s a gap of four shots back to the next group at 9-under 207.
“I was a little shaky,” said Bhatia. “I tried to play aggressive but stay conservative, play my own game. I hit a lot of good putts; they just didn’t fall today. I’m happy with today’s round.
“I tried to have the mindset that there’s still two days left in the tournament. I tried to play it like a separate tournament where everyone’s starting at even. So far I’ve played pretty solid.”
The front side was largely a collection of missed opportunities for Bhatia.
In a span of four holes starting at the fifth, he missed birdie putts of 6, 8 and 7 feet. His lead was reduced to one by the time he arrived at the par-4 18th, but he holed a downhill 10-footer there for birdie and a two-stroke advantage.
Tuleubayev grew up in Kazakhstan, a country with only seven golf courses.
His first interest in golf developed because his father played and occasionally brought home U.S.-based golf magazines. Casually leafing through one, he noticed the enormous sum of money won by Phil Mickelson after a victory and was further amazed that a golfer could be so successful “and you only have to work four days.”
He moved to the U.S. when he was 10 and spent two years in New Hampshire before moving to California so his game could develop more rapidly.
On Wednesday, he birdied the short par-5 11th to get within a shot of the lead, then received a tremendous break at the next.
Hitting a pitching wedge at the 150-yard 12th, his tee shot was 2 feet from sticking in tall grass on a steep hillside right of the green. The ball instead trickled onto a spot from where it rolled down the slope and onto the green, finally stopping 4 feet from the hole. Tuleubayev made that birdie putt to get to 15 under par, then gave a stroke back when he hit a 3-wood into the hazard left of the fairway at No. 16.
“That happens,” said Tuleubayev. “No big deal. … I’m happy with my finish. I think it’s a good indicator for tomorrow. I’m excited. My mind says I’ve got to chase down this guy (Bhatia). This course is very scoreable and I’ve got the game for it.”