Seventeen-year-old Akshay Bhatia engendered a unique curiosity as he met the media at the 2019 Valspar Championship, readying for his TOUR debut. The world’s No. 1-ranked junior wasn’t shy about his intentions of turning pro later that year, eschewing American golf’s typical collegiate path.
Who, exactly, was this kid?
The wiry, wavy-haired Californian-turned-North Carolinian projected an innocent charm as he fielded questions about his game, his background, whether he could adapt so quickly to the highest level. His bold plans contrasted his soft-spoken nature.
Then he was asked about adversity.
My question is, when I was 17 there was adversity at every turn for me. You’re 17, fixing to turn pro. How did you handle adversity then, how would you handle adversity moving forward?
Bhatia wasn’t familiar with the term.
“Can you explain ‘adversity’ to me?” he asked the reporter.
Bhatia’s past four years have arguably been framed by that exchange. He wasn’t immune to the inevitable struggles. Missed cuts, misses at Q-School, COVID. Doubters questioning whether he had the mettle. Comparisons to past pros who have eschewed college and flamed out.
Now a fifth-year pro at age 21, Bhatia has proven himself right.
The bespectacled Bhatia earned his first PGA TOUR title earlier in July at the Barracuda Championship, draining a 12-foot birdie at the 72nd hole at Tahoe Mountain Club (Old Greenwood) to match Patrick Rodgers with 40 points in the Modified Stableford format, then defeating Rodgers with a par on the first extra hole. Bhatia became a full PGA TOUR member, effective immediately, and crossed over to the FedExCup standings at No. 99 with 435 points (his points earned at the Barracuda and Barbasol Championship, both co-sanctioned with the DP World Tour, do not cross over).
Bhatia has packed a career’s worth of ups and downs into five years, and one of the most striking aspects of the timeline is this: A conventional college route would have pegged Bhatia to graduate just two months ago. In some ways, he’s very much ahead of schedule.
Bhatia has embraced the journey – which is only, somehow, just beginning.
Maybe he didn’t know the exact word at the 2019 Valspar, but Bhatia had experienced adversity to varying degrees throughout his youth. His dad Sonny, a feverishly hard worker in the real estate world – “He loves working,” Bhatia said – was diagnosed with a tumor in his eye in his 40s, bringing about the family’s cross-country move from Los Angeles to North Carolina when Bhatia was 10, for proximity to the Research Triangle’s top-notch medical facilities at the likes of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.
From the hustle and bustle of Southern California to the slow-paced Carolinian vibes, it wasn’t quite the likes of Sepp Straka’s Vienna-to-Valdosta migration, but a change in scenery nonetheless for an elementary schooler. His mom Renu hit the road, providing for the family through her work in corporate event planning.
All the while, Bhatia was developing into a junior golf sensation, accompanied by the fascination for getting better. Rather than burning out, practice fueled him. He craved it. His parents realized it – Renu supplemented her base pay with secondary work, largely to fund their son’s progression on the junior golf circuit. “One day, I’ll repay my mom,” Bhatia told Golf Digest in 2022.
That led to the ultimate commitment: With one year remaining in middle school, the family made a group decision that Bhatia would be home-schooled by his parents. Bhatia enrolled in Laurel Springs Online School – and he finished five years of school in three years, working toward a career in pro golf. He was so intent on this vision, he only made two college visits – casual ones at that – to Oklahoma State (he was playing a junior event on campus) and the University of Southern California (he was visiting family in L.A.). When coaches came calling, he respectfully conveyed that he didn’t plan to attend college.
Bhatia turned pro at the 2019 Sanderson Farms Championship, missing the cut with rounds of 70-74, but his education was far from done. He signed up for Korn Ferry Tour Q-School that year but missed at Second Stage, then COVID hit in spring 2020, further delaying his avenue to the PGA TOUR.
During the COVID downtime, Bhatia connected with Dr. Greg Cartin through his management team – the first time he had worked with a mental coach – and found the conversations productive.
“I realized he learned a lot more about how the brain works than I do,” Bhatia said.
Bhatia grew up in the era of instant connectivity and embraces the back-and-forth with his fans on social media. He understands the magic of a good story, and sometimes it can work both ways; he gravitates toward creating stories in his head, which sometimes can entail the bad things that can happen. He has worked to embrace the mind’s inner workings, rather than shy away from them – but then clear his mind for the shot at hand.
He earned his first TOUR top-10 at the 2020 Fortinet Championship, a key result in earning a spot in the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where he earned conditional status for 2022. The learning curve was quick; he won the 2022 season-opening Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, becoming the third youngest Korn Ferry Tour winner at age 19, behind only Sungjae Im and Jason Day. He was seemingly destined for a TOUR card.
Then adversity struck again. He fought through a back injury, struggling to find the proper balance of rest and practice. Missed cuts mounted, and he finished the season without a TOUR card. Back to the Korn Ferry Tour for 2023.
Then came the Puerto Rico Open in March, where he entered the final round in fifth place. He rung up Cartin just 10 minutes before his tee time. Cartin urged him to embrace the stories in his mind. “It’s OK if there are some bad ones,” he said. Bhatia bogeyed the first hole. It was OK. He shot 6 under on the back nine to finish runner-up and earn TOUR Special Temporary Membership.
Fast forward four months, and there’s Bhatia on the 72nd hole at the Barracuda, facing that 12-foot birdie try, knowing it was essential to his chances at the title. He drained it, uncorking a fist pump that perhaps channeled all those questions from the outside. It all coalesced into that moment – not quite Will Zalatoris’ spirited “What are they going to say now?” at the 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship, evoking Stephen Curry, but in the same vein.
Then Bhatia won with a routine two-putt par on the first extra hole. He’s now a full TOUR member, exempt through 2024. He’s inside the top 100 on the FedExCup, and with a big finish at the Regular Season-ending Wyndham Championship – fittingly, back home in North Carolina – he could earn one of the FedExCup Playoffs’ most unlikely berths.
It’s a tall task, tinted with, yes, adversity. He knows the word now. He owns the word. Why wouldn’t he?
“Adversity, to me, is learning,” Bhatia said this year. “You’re going to have challenges in life, and in this game, but learning and dealing with it is what’s going to make you the person you are. I really own up to that. I really love that word now. Just keep learning, keep grinding, and never give up.”
Spoken like a savvy PGA TOUR pro.
Source : PGA Tour