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.
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.
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.
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.
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