Who is Akshay Bhatia? The 17-year-old phenom who is being billed as next big thing in golf

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Published: December 1, 2019 12:37:25 AM

For the time being Bhatia has shifted his attention to qualifying schools for the second-tier Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour for the next season.

Here’s a quick reckoner: Bhatia, at the age of 17 became the youngest ever amateur to be selected for the American squad of the Walker Cup while he was still in high school.

The only high-school student, and youngest ever, to make it to the prestigious Walker Cup team, Californian native Akshay Bhatia, has taken the plunge into professional golf. Now you might wonder why I’m writing about an American youngster who hasn’t yet (and won’t be either) proving his mettle in the hyper-competitive collegiate golf circuit of that country. You might surmise that it might have to do with the fact that he’s of Indian origin. Now while I won’t deny that his Indian ancestry definitely adds to the story, the hype over Bhatia (already reaching a crescendo in the United States) has little to do with his ethnicity, and entirely to do with his mercurial rise in the game and his Tiger-esque precocious talent.

Here’s a quick reckoner: Bhatia, at the age of 17 became the youngest ever amateur to be selected for the American squad of the Walker Cup while he was still in high school. That was achievement enough but Bhatia justified his inclusion by orchestrating a now fabled 4 & 2 singles win over Amateur Champion James Sugrue—a blitzkrieg of a match in which Bhatia started with four 3s in the first five holes. His impressive junior golf career includes wins at the AJGA’s Rolex Tournament of Champions and Polo Golf Junior Classic.
Bhatia appears to have a flair for the dramatic: in 2018 he chipped in for eagle on the last to defend his title at the Junior PGA Championship and became the only player in the history of the event to win it twice, and in consecutive years too.

Given his achievements, not too many people were surprised when Bhatia announced his decision to eschew collegiate golf—and he could have pretty much waltzed into any university team of his choice—and turn pro instead. On the contrary, his plunge into pro golf quickly found the kind of endorsement which every young player dreams of.

Literally, with Callaway snapping the youngster up for a multi-year equipment and bag deal and Lagerdère Sports agency also striking a deal to represent the young American—and all before he’d ever teed it up in a pro event. That career began a couple of months back at the Sanderson Farms Championship in which he missed the cut but scored a creditable tow-under par 70 in his first round as a pro. Since then, Bhatia has failed to make the cut in four tour events that he’s played. But he’s not regretting his decision yet.
“I have never liked school,” Bhatia recently told reporters. “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.”

The golfing world has been viewing Bhatia’s progress with some trepidation. And with good reason: history is littered with examples of prodigies who’ve failed to live up to their potential by ‘jumping the gun,’ into pro golf. Ty Tryon remains a cautionary tale after earning his PGA Tour card at age 16, while even players who’ve performed remarkably on their local tours like Ryo Ishikawa and even on the European circuit like Matteo Manassero have faded from the arc-lights in recent years.

But Bhatia does have success stories he’s looking at emulating and one of them in particular, Matthew Wolff, is a close friend. Wolff, who won in his first few starts on the PGA Tour this year is also coached by George Gankas who’s been ironing out Bhatia’s golf swing and doubling up as the kid’s sports psychologist. “Expectations, I mean, I don’t really have any,” Bhatia told reporters before teeing it up at the Sandersons Farm Championship. “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.”

But he is inspired by the likes of 20-year-old Joaquin Niemann, who skipped college and found quick success as a pro when he won at The Greenbrier on the PGA Tour this year.

“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.”

For the time being Bhatia has shifted his attention to qualifying schools for the second-tier Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour for the next season. He’s a self-admitted golf nerd and is undoubtedly aware that the sponsor’s exemptions that have allowed him to tee it up in PGA Tour events are likely to dry up after his string of missed cuts. It’s going to be a trial by fire for the talented youngster—one that’s likely to test his mental fortitude much more than his skills with the golf club. After missing the cut at the Shriner’s Hospital Open, his third event on the PGA Tour, Bhatia was upbeat. “It’s been great, though,” he told GolfChannel.com. “I’ve had fun.” He’ll do well to hold on to that feeling; it’s rarer than rare in the grind of pro golf.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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