Best of Golf 2018: Dominant junior Bhatia plans to eschew college, embark on pro career

Oct 11, 2018; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Akshay Bhatia of the USA plays out of the bunker during the Golf Men's Individual Stroke Play Round 3 at the Hurlingham Club. The Youth Olympic Games, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand for OIS/IOC Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports Jonathan Nackstrand/USA TODAY Sports

Best of Golf 2018: Dominant junior Bhatia plans to eschew college, embark on pro career

Golf

Best of Golf 2018: Dominant junior Bhatia plans to eschew college, embark on pro career

Akshay Bhatia came to the final hole of the 2018 Boys Junior PGA Championship one shot off the lead and in need of a birdie at Valhalla Golf Club’s par-5 18th to force a playoff in his title defense.

But Bhatia’s thoughts were more aggressive.

“I was walking to 18, and I was like, ‘I do not want to play any more golf,’ “ Bhatia said.

Cue a dangerously fast 40-foot eagle chip that Bhatia holed for an electric walk-off win. It was almost too perfect a punctuation mark on a year in which Bhatia dominated junior golf.

He rose to No. 1, with no challenger particularly close. That’s what happens when you win the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, torch the field at the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic, make it to the U.S. Junior Amateur final and defend your title at the Junior PGA.

That run also affords statements like this without a hint of cockiness:

“Honestly I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish first or second,” Bhatia said.

And the 16-year-old’s future ambitions are even bolder.

For years Bhatia pondered the idea of skipping college to turn pro. But on the back of a stunning year that imbued him with confidence, he has now made up his mind. He will indeed be the rare American male player to forego college golf for the pro game.

Bhatia hopes to go pro when he turns 18 in January 2020.

“I just wanted to chase my dream and make a living out of this,” Bhatia said.

First, let’s be clear: Bhatia is not skipping from junior golf right to the pros. He’ll attempt to get through a handful of PGA Tour Monday qualifiers over the next few months, but he’ll mainly focus on amateur events in 2019.

One of his biggest aims next year is to make the U.S. Walker Cup team. After that, he’ll likely try Web.com Tour Q-School and turn pro afterward. If he earns exemptions into 2020 majors via a deep run in the U.S. Amateur or a U.S. Junior Amateur win, that could delay his pro debut, but only by months.

Regardless, it’s a big and unusual jump to bypass college.

In the U.S. the name that often comes to mind is Ty Tryon – the man who famously flamed out after earning his PGA Tour card at age 17. Kevin Na is a counterexample and more analogous to Bhatia, as the American has forged a lucrative career on the PGA Tour after the then-top-ranked junior in the country turned pro at 17.

But Na actually says now that he wished he’d gone to college for a semester. The 35-year-old contends it would’ve allowed him to connect with alumni “and most importantly to experience what an 18-year-old should be experiencing at that age just to say you did it and you know what it was like, you don’t feel like you totally missed out. I thought that I missed out.”

Bhatia, who did visit Oklahoma State and USC before making his pro decision, has heard that argument of the benefits of a short stint in college. The teenager counters he’s not the biggest fan of going to class (he’s been homeschooled for years) and his coaches have told him a year in college wouldn’t necessarily make him a better player.

As for the potential social benefit of a short time in college, Bhatia contends he doesn’t much need it, as he’s comfortable being a lone wolf.

“I’m home-schooled, I don’t have many friends, but it’s kind of the life I like, just being low key and doing my own thing,” Bhatia said.

That doesn’t mean he is embarking on this path alone.

Bhatia has a pair of deeply supportive parents. His father, Sonny, already has talked with agents and relayed info to his son. Bhatia’s stable of coaches includes George Gankas, Allen Terrell and Chase Duncan.

He’s played with and learned from pros such as Chesson Hadley, Chris Wilson and David Mathis at his home course (TPC Wakefield Plantation in Raleigh, N.C.). And he’s played against pros several times in Monday qualifiers already.

But is all of this enough for Bhatia to be ready as a pro at 18?

Wilson adds that Bhatia has an “it” factor and that he’s never been intimidated playing with Tour pros. Duncan has zero doubt Bhatia will be a successful pro.

Why is that? Duncan believes what may set Bhatia apart the most is his true self-belief in a strong pro future.

“A lot of people will state a goal that is more or less of a dream that on some level they don’t really believe,” Duncan said. “(But) when he says it, you sense that he really means it.” Gwk


LEXINGTON, KY - JULY 10: Lucy reads her yardage book on the third hole during Round Two of the Girls Junior PGA Championship held at Kearney Hill Golf Links on July 10, 2018 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Darren Carroll/PGA of America via Getty Images)

(Darren Carroll/PGA of America via Getty Images)

Top 5 Moments In Junior Golf 2018

5. Akshay Bhatia, Rachel Heck named AJGA Rolex Junior Players of the Year after strong 2018 showings.

4. Alexa Pano, a 13-year-old amateur, makes waves in competing in her first LPGA event.

3. Lucy Li (above) once again proves she’s ahead of the curve. At age 15, the amateur competes in two majors, with one being a T-55 at the U.S. Women’s Open.

2. Michael Thorbjornsen outlasts Akshay Bhatia in entertaining final match to win U.S. Junior Amateur.

1. Yealimi Noh goes on a summer tear, including masterful performances in victories at U.S. Girls’ Junior, Girls Junior PGA Championship.

(Note: This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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