Standout junior Akshay Bhatia among Walker Cup practice session invites

PGA of America

Standout junior Akshay Bhatia among Walker Cup practice session invites

Amateur

Standout junior Akshay Bhatia among Walker Cup practice session invites

Akshay Bhatia missed out on a spot in the Round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur last August after a bizarre rules violation. Bhatia was in position to win his first-round match against Bradford Tilley, but was penalized a hole for his local caddie receiving a ride back from the restroom at Pebble Beach’s 14th hole. He later lost the match in 19 holes.

Bhatia, a 16-year-old from Wake Forest, N.C., and the top-ranked junior golfer in the country, could’ve argued the ruling. He could’ve chewed out his caddie. He could’ve done many things not in the spirit of the game.

But he didn’t.

“What can you do?” Bhatia told Golf Channel afterward. “I’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in this tournament, so I’m not too upset about it.”

Little did Bhatia know at the time, but the unfortunate situation might have opened up another opportunity. In the gallery that day was 2019 U.S. Walker Cup captain Nathaniel Crosby. After seeing how Bhatia handled the adversity, Crosby sought out the youngster and gave him praise.

“It was a blessing for him to be watching me,” Bhatia said. “But no matter what, whoever is watching me, I’m never going to disrespect anyone or any tournament because that’s just not what you do. Golf is about being humble, mature and understanding who’s around you. This game is about growing. A lot of people have looked up to me the last year.”

And for good reason. Bhatia won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic and the Boys Junior PGA Championship this year while also representing his country in the Junior Ryder Cup and Youth Olympics. (He was a member of the inaugural U.S. Presidents Cup team in 2017, too.)

On Sunday evening, Bhatia received his AJGA Rolex Junior Player of the Year award during a banquet at PGA National. But there was more: He also found out that he will be one of 16 players who will attend the Walker Cup practice session next month.

“Thinking about it, it’s something that I’m going to be honored to be a part of,” Bhatia told Golfweek. “I was never thinking about getting into that because you don’t think about that as a high-schooler. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity.

“It’s definitely going to be hard to make the team. But just to be announced in that group, it’s a dream come true.”

Bhatia is the first junior golfer to be invited since Jim Liu in 2012. The last time a junior made the actual U.S. Walker Cup team was 2011, when both Jordan Spieth and Patrick Rodgers made the squad as incoming college freshmen. Spieth won two singles matches and halved a foursomes match alongside Rodgers that week at Royal Aberdeen.

While Bhatia has plans to skip college and turn pro, any pro aspirations will be put on hold if he should qualify for the Walker Cup, which will be played Sept. 7-8 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.

“More than anything, to represent your country amps you up,” Bhatia 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.”

Joining Bhatia at the Dec. 14-18 practice session (site to be determined) will be: Stewart Hagestad, the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who is the only 2017 Walker Cupper attending the practice session; the two most recent Mid-Am champs, Matt Parziale and Kevin O’Connell; Texas freshman Cole Hammer, who won the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball and Western Amateur this year; Oklahoma State sophomore Matt Wolff, the top-ranked player in college golf; Vanderbilt teammates John Augenstein and Will Gordon; Stanford teammates Brandon Wu and Isaiah Salinda; Auburn sophomore Brandon Mancheno; Texas A&M senior Chandler Phillips; Alabama senior Davis Riley; Clemson senior Bryson Nimmer; Duke senior Alex Smalley; and Georgia Tech junior Tyler Strafaci.

“This practice session presents an excellent opportunity for the players, the captain and the USGA to become familiar with each other as we begin the process of team selection,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director of championships. “Individual personalities show through and we see the beginning of a sense of team spirit. While these 16 talented individuals represent the first pool of potential team members, we expect many others will be considered as the selection process moves toward its conclusion next August.”

Six players invited to the 2016 practice session ended up making the 2017 team that went on to win at Los Angeles Country Club. But next year, a new selection process will debut. Automatic spots will be given to the 2019 U.S. Amateur champion, 2019 McCormack medalist and the top 3 eligible players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking as of early August.

With current Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – Justin Suh, Collin Morikawa and Braden Thornberry – all planning to turn pro, that leaves No. 5 Wolff, No. 8 Riley and No. 11 Hammer as the current top 3 Americans in the world.

There weren’t any glaring snubs for the practice session. There were just four Americans in the top 50 of the WAGR who didn’t get the call: U.S. Junior champion Michael Thorbjornsen (25), Georgia freshman Trent Phillips (39), Pepperdine senior Sahith Theegala (43) and Georgia Southern senior Steven Fisk (44). Theegala is sitting out this season while recovering from a wrist injury.

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