His long-awaited breakthrough finally at hand, Akshay Bhatia celebrated by nearly holing out his final shot. His approach shot on the 18th hole Wednesday in the Bahamas bounced off the pin for a tap-in and, it turned out, a birdie he didn’t even need.
Bhatia’s two-shot win at the Korn Ferry Tour’s Greater Exuma Bahamas Classic is a tremendous milestone for the 19-year-old from Wake Forest, not only his first pro victory but the opening to play in more tournaments he has been seeking for more than two years – and all but securing his PGA Tour card for next summer in the process.
After deciding to skip college and turn pro at 17, Bhatia has been scraping by on sponsor’s exemptions and Monday qualifying, trying to win enough money to get some kind of status. He narrowly missed on a full Korn Ferry exemption at qualifying school, but got into the Bahamas event and the rest is history.
There have been so many close calls along the way, but at the end of this one, Bhatia left no doubt.
“For everything to happen the way it did, it’s crazy,” Bhatia told reporters in the Bahamas. “I don’t know how I managed my emotions but I did. I felt really calm. Fifteen tee we were waiting a while, so I just sat and looked at the ocean.”
He’s now two Korn Ferry wins away from an immediate battlefield promotion to the big tour, and it’s rare a tournament winner doesn’t finish in the top 25 at the end of the year to get a tour card. The win also gives him full status on the second-tier tour, and for the first time since he turned pro, he can actually plan ahead this summer, with one big tournament already on his calendar.
“I’m just excited to play next week,” Bhatia said. “I have never had a schedule. Just to be able to have a schedule and look forward to playing certain events like the Rex Hospital Open at my home course, there’s all sorts of things I can look forward to this year.”
That tournament is at the Country Club at Wakefield Plantation, where Bhatia has practiced and played for years, on June 2-5.
Bhatia is only the third teenager to win on the second-tier tour, joining current PGA Tour stars Sungjae Im and Jason Day, and did it three weeks after dislocating his shoulder and with his non-golfing girlfriend caddying for him for the first time. Bhatia met Raleigh’s Presleigh Schultz on Instagram, where she has almost 17,000 followers, and she took over this week for Jonas Hillyard, a childhood friend of Bhatia’s who has been on his bag for the past year.
“I don’t know what I’m going to tell my caddy, I really don’t,” Bhatia said. “Because this is working right now.”
Bhatia’s decision to head directly to pro golf — with a Callaway sponsorship deal and rides on Phil Mickelson’s private jet — had its share of doubters and critics, especially when he missed his first six cuts on the PGA Tour. The pandemic shutdown allowed him to refocus and regroup, and he’s been knocking on the door ever since: a top-10 at the Safeway Classic in September 2020, a top-30 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last February, a clutch putt on the 18th green to make the cut at the U.S. Open last summer, also at Pebble.
At Korn Ferry qualifying school in Florida in November, he missed guaranteed status by two shots, finishing tied for 63rd. But that conditional status got him a spot in the Bahamas, with many Korn Ferry pros playing the PGA Tour event in Palm Springs this week, and Bhatia finally cashed in.
“The first year I turned pro is one of the worst years I’ve had playing golf,” Bhatia said. “I struggled mentally. I missed every cut. I had a lot of people expecting me to play well and obviously I expected to play well and it just didn’t happen. With COVID hitting, it was tough on everyone, but it was a blessing for me. I got to sit back, talk to my coach, realize where I’m at in my life. After that, my life’s kind of, I’ve just climbed the mountain slowly and slowly and slowly.”