GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA | It wasn’t that long ago that Alex Smalley and Akshay Bhatia lived two streets apart in tiny Wake Forest, not far from Raleigh, each chasing what both since have found.
Part of a vibrant group of young golfers in North Carolina that included Ben Griffin, Doc Redman, Grayson Murray and others, Smalley and Bhatia plotted their own paths and now find themselves as fixtures on the PGA Tour.
Smalley, who starts the final week of the PGA Tour’s regular season in 47th position, is a member at Sedgefield Country Club where the Wyndham Championship is being played. Bhatia is two weeks removed from his first tour victory, at the Barracuda Championship.
Beyond the obvious goal of trying to win this week, each has his own secondary target. Smalley already has qualified for the FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin next week with the FedEx St. Jude Championship in Memphis, Tennessee. If he can remain in the top 50 through that event, not only would he qualify for the BMW Championship, he would secure entry into each of the big-money designated events next year.
Bhatia, sitting 99th in points, needs a high finish to slip into the playoffs, but his victory at the Barracuda secured his full tour privileges for the next two years.
“I’m very fortunate and grateful to be in the position I’m in. I have my job locked up for next year kind of already, my card. So, I recognize that there are a number of people that are in a different situation than me looking just to get inside the top 50.” – Alex Smalley
Smalley, who had a terrific career at Duke that preceded a spot on the victorious 2019 Walker Cup team, has taken the more traditional path while Bhatia bypassed college and turned pro at 17.
“I’m very fortunate and grateful to be in the position I’m in,” Smalley said here this week. “I have my job locked up for next year kind of already, my card. So, I recognize that there are a number of people that are in a different situation than me looking just to get inside the top 50.
“There are guys that are just trying to keep their card for next year. That pressure’s a little more than just trying to get into the top 50 and trying to get into the playoffs. You’re playing for your job, your livelihood. I feel like that pressure’s a little more intense than kind of the stuff that I’m feeling right now.”
This week is a true home game for Smalley, who spends his off weeks at Sedgefield. Walking from the clubhouse to the putting green is second nature, though this week there is a Margaritaville-themed hospitality pavilion nearby and the many fans, plenty of whom know Smalley.
It has been a productive summer for Smalley, who tied for ninth at the Travelers Championship in late June and had his best career finish two weeks later at the John Deere Classic, tying for second.
The success evidently hasn’t spoiled the 26-year-old Smalley, who is still driving the 2020 Honda Accord that he had before earning his PGA Tour card.
“I’m not one who would go and buy a whole lot of things,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever will be.”
Bhatia lives about 90 minutes from Sedgefield, so while it’s not exactly in his backyard, he and his girlfriend have made it feel like home by bringing their two goldendoodles with them in a house they are sharing with other players.
Because of a wrinkle in the tour points structure, Bhatia did not earn FedEx Cup points for his recent victory because he was playing as a special temporary member. Although the points would have pushed Bhatia well inside the playoff bubble, the euphoria of winning his first event softened his spot in the standings.
“Obviously I want to go out and play good golf and have a good week and earn my spot into the playoffs next week, but I think it’s a little more freeing,” Bhatia said. “I know how to do it. I have done it.”
“I felt like in junior golf I was always kind of No. 1 in my class. and I felt like I was so good that it was going to be easy coming out here, but it really isn’t.” – Akshay Bhatia
Bhatia had a spectacular junior and amateur career, but his decision to bypass college in order to play Monday qualifiers and eventually the Korn Ferry Tour raised eyebrows. He won on the Korn Ferry Tour but later hurt his back, slowing his development.
When he finished T4 at the Mexico Open in April, Bhatia offered a hint of what was to come this summer.
Having been around him for years, Smalley could see it coming, too.
“Not a lot of people skip college in the U.S. and go straight to the pro ranks anymore. I can’t think of anyone else who has really done it and has been successful,” Smalley said
“I don’t know if this is true, but it just seems that more Europeans tend to kind of choose that route and don’t play in college. But he is very, very talented, and I think it was only a matter of time before he was going to be out here for a number of years.
“It’s very cool to see someone that I grew up with who’s not only succeeding, but is winning as well. Very, very happy for him.”
Bhatia has a star quality about him. Just 21 years old and barely 130 pounds, the left-hander wears long dark hair that spills from under his cap, and he plays with an outward energy that fans can sense.
If the golf public is still learning about Bhatia – and Smalley – the former No. 1 junior in the world is still learning himself.
“I felt like in junior golf I was always kind of No. 1 in my class. and I felt like I was so good that it was going to be easy coming out here, but it really isn’t,” Bhatia said.
“You have to work so hard to get out here. So, when I turned pro, I felt like I was ready, but I really wasn’t. I’ve really realized that.”
For Smalley and Bhatia, two paths have led to the same place.
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