Akshay Bhatia overcomes rangefinder penalty to share Sage Valley lead

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Akshay Bhatia overcomes rangefinder penalty to share Sage Valley lead

Junior

Akshay Bhatia overcomes rangefinder penalty to share Sage Valley lead

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GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Akshay Bhatia got off to a strong start Thursday morning at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. He birdied two of his first three holes and was a solid pitch shot away from giving himself a good look at birdie on the par-5 fourth hole.

Then, just like he is accustomed to doing in most of his junior and amateur tournaments, Bhatia reached in his golf bag, pulled out his rangefinder and shot his number.

40 yards.

But Bhatia quickly got a sinking feeling in his stomach. His playing competitor, Michael Sanders, asked Bhatia if he had just used his rangefinder. Knowing that rangefinders aren’t permitted this week at the Junior Invitational, Bhatia replied honestly.

“I knew I couldn’t use a rangefinder, but I decided to take it out for some reason and use it,” Bhatia said of the mental error. “… It’s my fault. I should’ve taken it out of the golf bag (before the round). It sucks, but I’m grateful I’m still in this position and not disqualified.”

The two-shot penalty left Bhatia with a double bogey on the hole, but that was his only score worse than bogey in Thursday’s opening round at Sage Valley Golf Club. The Wake Forest, N.C., native made six birdies and shot 4-under 68 in windy conditions to take a share of the lead with Sweden’s Ludvig Aberg after Round 1.

“The wind today, it was brutal,” Bhatia said, referring to sustained winds around 15 mph for much of the round. “Picking clubs and staying stable over putts were difficult.”

Yet Bhatia didn’t card a bogey aside from his rangefinder blunder. The 16-year-old admitted he didn’t play great in his preparation on Tuesday and Wednesday, but when he got to the range Thursday morning “everything felt good.” He struck it nicely from tee to green, avoiding trouble and letting his putter and short game shine.

That’s when Bhatia is at his best, when he’s reading greens well and executing with his putter and chipping clubs. That was the case last summer when he shot 22 under to win the Boys Junior PGA Championship in record fashion. And while he had his share of impressive ballstriking displays, including a tight approach at the par-4 18th to set up birdie, Bhatia thrived at saving tough pars on a Sage Valley layout that would surely never yield a 22-under winning score.

“He has an amazing ability to get up and down from everywhere,” said Bhatia’s father, Sonny.

Sonny Bhatia bought his son a TrackMan at the beginning of the year and had a hitting bay built in the family’s garage. Akshay spent much time in that bay during the winter months, working hard on his distance control with his irons. The young Bhatia, who has yet to decide if he will play college golf (he has competed in several PGA Tour Monday qualifiers this season), also recently started working with instructor Chase Duncan, and his swing speed has jumped from about 101 mph to 115 mph in the past year.

“I’m a stronger player than I was last year,” Bhatia said.

He’ll need that strength to fend off Aberg and the rest of a stacked leaderboard that includes Canon Claycomb and Jacob Bridgeman at 1 under, Julian Perico, Ricky Castillo and Nicolas Cassidy at even par, and a group of six players at 1 over that features Joe Pagdin, Robin Williams and Trent Phillips.

The 18-year-old Swede, who is committed to Texas Tech, didn’t have the best of starts Thursday. Aberg bogeyed the fourth hole and doubled the long par-3 seventh, and was 1 over after eight holes.

“I started off the round pretty bad with my putter,” Aberg said.

But then he found some confidence by draining a tricky 6-footer for par at the tough par-4 ninth. That sparked a four-birdie stretch beginning at the par-5 10th. He made two tap-in birdies before holing 6-footers at Nos. 12 and 13.

“All the confidence comes from my putter really,” said Aberg, who added a closing birdie to tie Bhatia at 4 under.

Aberg, who won the 2017 Fairhaven Trophy by nine shots in windy conditions, said he was not surprised to see just four players under par after 18 holes.

“The greens are so slick,” Aberg said. “You try to position yourself in the right spots because if you’re not doing that there’s no chance that you’re saving par.”

Claycomb, who posted a runaway win of his own in windy weather last fall at the Ping Invitational, added: “Conditions like this really bring out the golfer who can control the golf ball, know where it’s going and hit shots that need to be hit in this wind.”

And for this week, do all of that without a rangefinder.

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