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Teen phenom Bhatia set for pro debut at Sanderson

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Akshay Bhatia is taking the PGA Tour's recent youth movement to an entirely new level.

At just 17 years old, Bhatia bears the fresh face and thin frame you might expect of a typical high school senior. His golf game, however, is ready for the big time. At least that's the assertion of Bhatia and his close-knit team, as the teen sensation gets ready to make his pro debut this week at the Sanderson Farms Championship without ever setting foot on a college campus.

Bhatia's game is well-regarded in the amateur ranks. He won the prestigious Jones Cup, was ranked No. 5 in the world and just this month helped the U.S. to a Walker Cup victory at Royal Liverpool. Bhatia received social media well-wishes Wednesday from former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, whose academy in South Carolina has been a frequent destination for the bespectacled southpaw as he honed his game.

Bhatia's fast track to the pros has not been an overnight decision. When he made his PGA Tour debut in March, missing the cut with rounds of 74-72 at the Valspar Championship, he told reporters that he and his parents had talked about his option to skip college since he was in the eighth grade.

"I have never liked school," Bhatia said. "I've never been very smart going in, sitting in a classroom, and I have the worst attention span when it comes to it. So I just love being outside, I love playing golf, and I just love competing. So my dad was like, 'You know what, let's just not go to college. Let's just not do it.' And I was like, 'Yeah, that's fine.' I'm an eighth-grader, of course I'm going to say no to school."

Bhatia's route since then has certainly been unique. While many teens toil on high school teams and municipal driving ranges, Bhatia would hit balls at Johnson's academy under the watchful eye of director of instruction Alan Terrell. He also works with George Gankas, another noted swing instructor who has worked with multiple Tour pros including Adam Scott and Matthew Wolff.

He's even made a splash on the equipment scene before hitting his first professional shot. While Bhatia was decked out in Taylor Made equipment at Innisbrook earlier this year, he announced this week that he had signed an equipment contract with Callaway. It all helps to build up expectations surrounding a phenom taking an uncharted path, one who insists he's not buying into his own hype.

Sanderson Farms Championship: Full-field tee times | Full coverage

"Expectations, I mean, I don't really have any," Bhatia told reporters Wednesday in Mississippi. "My coach, George, and I talked about not having any expectations going into every week. What happens, happens. I'm not going to dwell if I don't play well, or go ballistic if I do play well."

While Bhatia's accolades are numerous, the fate of players who have followed his college-free path is mixed. Ty Tryon became a cautionary tale after earning his PGA Tour card at age 16, while global teen sensations like Ryo Ishikawa and Matteo Manassero have faded from the spotlight in recent years.

Bhatia can take confidence from the recent success of Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland, but his credentials are far less tested than any of the three were when they turned pro earlier this year. Instead he hopes to emulate last week's winner, Joaquin Niemann, who skipped college and found quick success as a pro before earning his first win at The Greenbrier at age 20.

"To see him finally break through and win, it was probably the coolest thing," Bhatia said. "It's inspiring to see that. I'm ready to get it going and see what I can do."

Bhatia will have a few chances to prove himself in the coming weeks. He was originally expected to make his pro debut next week at the Safeway Open, and he'll still play in Napa on a sponsor invite. The same goes for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open the following week in Las Vegas. After that, he'll likely head to second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School in an effort to earn some full-time status for 2020.

But it all starts this week in Mississippi, where he'll look to earn his first paycheck while proving that college experience isn't a requirement to be considered a young gun on the modern PGA Tour.

"Doesn't feel any different, actually. It's weird," Bhatia said. "I didn't know what to expect. It hasn't felt much different. I feel very comfortable this week, especially having the opportunity to play Valspar earlier this year which was kind of getting that 'wow' factor over with."