Leading by one and staring down a wedge shot on the final hole, Akshay Bhatia did what any prodigy would do: He called his shot, and then delivered.
The 19-year-old Bhatia, who once dominated the junior ranks but has mostly struggled since eschewing college for the pros at age 17, faced 156 yards into the par-5 finishing hole on Wednesday at Sandals Emerald Bay. Moments earlier, Bhatia had turned to his caddie, girlfriend Presleigh Schultz, and declared, with the same confidence he used when he asked Schultz out through Instagram last year, “This is my time.”
So, he grabbed his pitching wedge, stepped up and flagged one off the stick.
As it turned out, Bhatia only needed par, but the tap-in birdie put an exclamation point on a two-shot victory over Paul Haley II at the Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, the Korn Ferry Tour’s season opener and Bhatia’s first start as a conditional member of the feeder tour.
“I'm sure I'm going to scream once I get back to my hotel room,” said Bhatia, who doesn’t turn 20 for another 12 days but already is in the driver’s seat for a promotion to the PGA Tour at season’s end. “Yeah, it's cool. I don't know what to say other than I'm just happy to be here.”
A few years ago, most people, including Bhatia himself, expected to be here – albeit sooner. Though he took an unconventional route to the pros, bypassing what many believe as a key stage of development, there was no denying the kid’s talent. Bhatia won seemingly everything he looked at as a junior – the Junior PGA, the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, AJGA invitationals, nearly a U.S. Junior before buddy Michael Thorbjornsen clipped him in that 2018 final – and few could’ve predicted more than but a few growing pains. Yet, when he made the big leap, Bhatia fell hard.
Bhatia’s struggles have been well documented in recent seasons. Upon joining the play-for-pay ranks, Bhatia missed his first seven cuts, six on the PGA Tour and another at the Saudi International, and failed to find his footing on anything other than the mini-tours. He tied for ninth at the 2020 Safeway Open, which he parlayed into enough non-member points (108) for a ticket to Korn Ferry Tour Finals (and by extension his KFT card), but by the time he qualified for last summer’s U.S. Open, he was mentally drained.
He had missed four of his six Tour cuts since Napa, and even making the weekend at Torrey Pines couldn’t brighten his mood.
“I just have a hard time enjoying myself and understanding the opportunity I created for myself and just the atmosphere,” said Bhatia after a third-round 72 (he’d go on to tie for 57th after a closing 75). “I should enjoy it a lot more than I do. I just didn't have fun today.”
Bhatia followed with two more missed cuts on Tour. He then bombed at KFT Finals, missing the first two cuts before posting a meaningless T-41, and capped the year by missing eight guaranteed starts by two shots at the final stage of KFT Q-School.
But, as Bhatia pointed out Wednesday, he had been trending toward this week's breakthrough for the past year and a half.
“It's crazy, the first year I turned pro is one of the worst years I've had playing golf,” he said. “I struggled mentally. I missed every cut. I had a lot of people expecting me to play well and it didn't happen. But with COVID hitting, obviously, it was really hard for everyone, but it was a blessing for me because I got to sit back, talk to my coach, realize where I'm at in my life. After that, you know, my life's kind of – I've just climbed the mountain slowly and slowly and slowly.”
Still, that Bhatia reached the first peak this week was somewhat unexpected. For one, he had dislocated his left shoulder three weeks ago and didn’t start hitting balls again until early last week. And secondly, the first of back-to-back Bahamas stops isn’t exactly the most popular among pros, with several skipping the season opener, its quirky layout and windy conditions.
Bhatia, though, was surprised at how quickly his swing returned – and even improved – following the injury, and when he arrived in Exuma, he felt a sense of calmness on a course that so often can inflict chaos.
“I just knew exactly what shot I needed to hit on every single hole I felt like,” Bhatia said. Especially on the last one.
Bhatia got into this week’s field courtesy of the category reserved for Nos. 151-200 in FedExCup points, and his original goal, one that remained as he began his final round, was to finish inside the top 10 and automatically qualify for another week. Such is the life of a tour pro without full status. Only Bhatia, who played his final nine in 5 under with birdies on three of his last four holes, no longer has that problem.
After joining Jason Day and Sungjae Im as the third teenage winner in KFT history, Bhatia can finally, for the first time in his young career, plan a legit schedule – and he'll have to draft some fresh goals, too.
“For me to be able to mentally and physically compete and win at one of the highest levels in golf, it's something that I'll cherish for a while,” he said. “I'll just keep going and try and chase that Tour card. … I would like to win three [times] and get promoted to the PGA Tour, so I guess that's my goal.”
It’s a lofty one, but then again, Bhatia is used to those kind of expectations.