With his prodigious length and remarkable calm under pressure, Cameron Champ was labeled a game changer when he won the Sanderson Farms Championship in late October and followed up with solid play throughout the remainder of the PGA Tour’s fall schedule. But Champ, 23, isn’t the only aspiring prodigy showing that type of breakthrough potential.
Living in Wake Forest, North Carolina, there is a left-handed, 16-year-old wearing trendy, large-frame glasses and built not dissimilarly to Tiger Woods at that age that is tearing up the boys junior golf ranks. Instead of committing to Wake Forest or any of the other golf powerhouses, this is a kid who announced on the first day of recruiting in September that he plans to turn pro at age 18, who said it will be cool to play with Brooks Koepka, and who has a goal of being the No. 1 player in the world by 2030.
His name is Akshay Bhatia and his big plans were showcased over the last four days with a five-stroke win on Thursday in the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It was his fourth title over the past year and his first as the Boys Rolex Player of the Year, a title once held by major champions Phil Mickelson (1986-1987-1988), David Duval (1989) Woods (1991-1992) and Jordan Spieth (2009).
“A lot of it is self-belief, knowing I’m good enough to win in every circumstance,’’ Bhatia said.
One of the big differences between this sensation and Mickelson, Duval, Woods and Spieth is that they attended college before turning pro. Mickelson remained an amateur even after winning the Northern Telecom Open in 1991, repeatedly saying he didn’t want to give up the amateur experience with a career awaiting in professional golf. Phil turned pro in 1992, after earning his degree in psychology at Arizona State.
Schooled online, the son of parents born in India has a different vision. “I know what I want to pursue,” Bhatia told me after his win on Thanksgiving Day. “I know college is mainly the way to go, but I believe I’m capable of making it earlier in my career [as a pro].”
Bhatia’s plan for the next two years is to play amateur tournaments, Monday qualify for tour events as an amateur and incorporate two junior amateur events, the Junior Invitational and the U.S. Junior Amateur, into his schedule. Later on, he could always fall back on college golf.
In terms of performance, Bhatia is further along than where Champ was at 16, with room to physically grow at 6-foot, 125 pounds. Even at that weight, distance doesn’t seem to be a problem. At the Tournament of Champions, he shot 66-68 in his two rounds on the Champion course, which played one yard longer at 7,141 yards than when it hosts the Honda Classic. He added two rounds of 68 on the resort’s Fazio course, which was set up at 6,995 yards.
Asked to compare himself to Koepka, Bhatia told me that he’s physically more comparable to Justin Thomas, who won the 2018 Honda in a playoff over Luke List. Thomas wasn’t much bigger leaving Alabama following his sophomore season than Bhatia is now. “I’m small,” Bhatia said. “But I create a lot of power.”
Majoring in golf, Bhatia has been focusing more on the numbers coming out of his Trackman – a birthday present from parents Sunil and Renu – than his academic report cards. His education includes a tutorial this past April at Sage Valley, not far from Augusta National. It was there during the Junior Invitational that a precocious Bhatia had a chance to play table tennis with Koepka and ask the reigning U.S. Open champion about how to pursue his dream.
Bhatia wanted to know how Koekpa, who sat out the Masters with a dislocated wrist, dealt with injuries. He questioned Koepka on his philosophy in fitness training, his preparation for the U.S. Open, and his unique path to the PGA Tour by playing the European Tour’s Challenge Tour.
Bhatia soaked in the information and won the tournament by a stroke. As the year progressed, he became the first repeat winner of the Junior PGA Championship when he chipped in for eagle on the 72nd hole, won the Polo Golf Junior PGA by 10 strokes, and earned the most qualifying points for the Boys Junior Ryder Cup standings in France.
“I just want to be out there [on tour] and I know I have the game to do it,” he said. “In my case, if I get out there and perform, it’ll take care of itself.”
Ty Tryon and others had the same self-confidence when they turned pro early and fell on hard times. Bhatia’s coach, Chase Duncan, is quick to point that out. But he feels like Akshay is the outlier.
“You could write a long story about the previously No. 1-ranked juniors that turned pro early at a super young age and didn’t amount to much,” Duncan said. “But there’s something different about him. The best way I can describe it, you hear a lot of positive self-talk, a lot of clichés, a lot of saying the right things; but he’s been so focused, so tunnel-visioned about that he’s doing, and he’s winning these tournaments by some big margins, like he did again today. I realize how ridiculously bold and outlandish this is, but I would absolutely bet on him. I think he’ll end up be the No. 1 player in the world.”