Advertisement
  1. Sports

Amateur Akshay Bhatia: ‘I’m not just here to make the cut. I’m here to win.’

The 17-year-old from North Carolina is the top junior player in the world and has high expectations for the Valspar Championship.
Akshay Bhatia plays out of the bunker during the Golf Men's Individual Stroke Play Round 3 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 2018. (Jonathan Nackstrand for OIS/IOC)
Published Mar. 19

PALM HARBOR — Akshay Bhatia is a 17-year-old amateur from Wake Forest, N.C. He’s one of the youngest players to ever tee it up at a PGA event on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course.

This will be his first PGA tournament. No teenager has won the Valspar Championship. Very few have entered. No amateur has won a PGA Tour event since Phil Mickelson in 1991.

Don’t tell Bhatia that.

“It’s another tournament to me,” said Bhatia, who received a sponsor’s exemption. “I’m not here to just show up and make the cut. I’m here to win.”

To be sure, Bhatia already has a Tiger Woods-like amateur career. He finished 2018 as the world’s top-ranked junior player. He is ranked ninth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.

The lanky left-hander won the prestigious Jones Cup for top amateurs in early February. He played on the winning Junior Ryder Cup team last year. And he has won consecutive Junior PGA Championships.

His junior golf accomplishments have even led to a Twitter page started by fans: @AkshayBhatiaPGA.

But unlike Woods, Bhatia doesn’t plan on playing golf in college. He hopes to play in the Walker Cup in September, then turn professional. It’s a decision he basically made in middle school.

“I’ve never liked school,” Bhatia said. “I’ve never been very smart. I have the worst attention span when it comes to it. I love being outside, playing golf and competing. So my dad just said, ‘Ya know what, let’s not go to college.’ I said ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ I’m in eighth grade, of course I’m going to say no to school.”

Bhatia’s father, Sonny, knew even before then that his son might have a future in golf. When Akshay was 11 years old, he made it known to his dad that golf was his passion. Sonny doesn’t remember the exact day, but he remembers the exact time.

“It was 2 in the morning and this little kid comes into my bedroom,” he said. “He wakes me up and says, ‘Hey, dad, what does it take to be the best golfer in the world?’ I said ‘It’s 2 in the morning, Shay. Can we talk about this tomorrow?’

“In the morning at breakfast I said, ‘Shay, I have your answer. You have to be the first one to the course and the last one to leave.’ I thought an 11-year-old would understand that. He just totally committed to that statement. It went from there.”

Bhatia comes from a golf family, sort of. His older sister, Rhea, played golf at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. As for Sonny’s golf game?

“I’m terrible,” he said.

But he knew his son was not.

Golf became the main priority. Bhatia takes online classes and is hoping to graduate by the end of the summer. He works with coach Allen Terrell, who is also Dustin Johnson’s coach. He has already played with some of golf’s elite players and he’s had lunch with Jack Nicklaus.

On Tuesday, he played nine holes with Jon Rahm, the 10th-ranked golfer in the world. He asked him advice and even needled him a bit.

“On the second hole I hit a 3-iron and he hit 5-wood,” Bhatia said. “He hit it way by me and then said, ‘You might want to tee it up here to catch up with me.’ I had 210 yards and I hit a four-iron to 4 feet. I told him to try to hit inside of that. He didn’t.”

It was only a Tuesday practice round, but Bhatia was already showing his competitive side. When he tees off for real on Thursday at 2:31 p.m. with playing partners Kramer Hickok and Chase Wright, he expects to be the best player in the group.

Maybe even the best player in the field.

“That’s just who Shay is,” Sonny Bhatia said.

More changes

Sean O’Hair, who won here in 2008, has withdrawn from the tournament. Alternate Shawn Stefani is now in the field. Also, four players earned their way into the field from Monday qualifying.

Brian Davis, Roberto Diaz and Sangmoon Bae each shot 6-under 66 at Southern Hills Plantation. David Hearn won a five-hole playoff to earn the fourth spot after shooting 67. Bae was in contention at the 2012 tournament here. He was in a four-man playoff that included Jim Furyk, Robert Garrigus and eventual winner Luke Donald.

Wily vets

Brian Gay, 47, has played in more PGA tournaments at Innisbrook than any other player in the field. The former Gator has played in every tournament dating to 2000 (with the exception of 2015). His best finish was a tie for fourth in 2004. He has missed the cut the past three years.

Kenny Perry, 58, also played in the 2000 tournament. He is the oldest player in the field and last played the Copperhead Course in 2015. His best finish was a tie for eighth in 2004.

Power pairings

Looking for some groups to follow on Thursday and Friday? Webb Simpson, Jason Day and Rahm will tee off together in Thursday’s 8:13 a.m. group off the first tee. Right behind them will be Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia.

Valspar Championship

When/where: Thursday - Sunday, Innisbrook Golf Resort, Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor

Tickets: Tuesday (free), Wednesday ($10), Thursday, Friday, Sunday ($39), Saturday ($49). Go to Valsparchampionship.com

Defending champion: Paul Casey

Purse: $6.7 million ($1,170,00 to winner)

TV: Thursday-Friday 2-6 p.m. on Golf Channel; Saturday-Sunday 3-6 on NBC

Schedule: Wednesday, pro-am; Thursday-Sunday, competitive rounds.

Social media: @ValsparChamp

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Lightning and more sports on the air.
  2. Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP
    Koetter went 19-29 until his dismissal following the 2018 season
  3. USF Bulls guard Elisa Pinzan (4) drive to the basket past Jacksonville Dolphins guard Mariah Batz (13) during the first half at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The contest in Waco highlights yet another daunting non-conference Bulls schedule.
  4. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) before an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP
    Tampa Bay’s second-year defenseman is primed to take on a bigger role.
  5. FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2019, file photo, Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter smiles as he speaks during a news conference in Miami. Derek Jeter is among 18 newcomers on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot, announced Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, and is likely to be an overwhelming choice to join former New York Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera in Cooperstown after the reliever last year became the first unanimous pick by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) WILFREDO LEE  |  AP
    Former Rays Carlos Pena and Heath Bell are also among the 18 up for election for the first time.
  6. Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II (3) barrels through USF's defense for a first down during the fourth quarter of the Bearcats' 20-17 win Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls and Bearcats will continue meeting on a home-and-home basis through at least 2021. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    For now, USF retains home-and-home matchups with four East Division foes
  7. Jameis Winston (3) is expected to start Sunday at Atlanta despite the ankle injury he suffered late in the Bucs' 34-17 loss Sunday to New Orleans. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Bucs quarterback, who sprained his left ankle Sunday, should play against the Falcons.
  8. USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) leaps to avoid UCF defensive back Mike Hughes (19) and during the second half of the Knights' 49-42 triumph in Orlando in 2017. This year's game, also at Orlando's Spectrum Stadium, kicks off at 8 p.m. on Nov. 29. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
    The game hasn’t kicked off in the evening since 2015
  9. Long faces dominate some of the remaining Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans during the fourth quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: What remaining game will Tampa Bay be favored to win?
  10. BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times
Florida State Seminoles defensive back Asante Samuel Jr. (26) deflects a pass to Florida Gators tight end C'yontai Lewis (80) in the first quarter at Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State University in Tallahassee on Saturday, November 24, 2018.  "BRONTE WITTPENN  | TIMES"
    The SEC Network will broadcast the annual rivalry meeting.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement