PALM HARBOR, FLORIDA | It’s hard to imagine seeing a player more nervous on the first tee than Akshay Bhatia prior to his PGA Tour debut.
The slender 17-year-old high school junior, accompanied by a posse larger than any other pro’s this week, went through a line of hugs with family and friends before arriving to greet his playing partners. Then he paced back and forth from the starter’s tent to his bag, grabbing a banana, a bottle of water, a scorecard, anything to keep moving. By the time it was his turn to play, Bhatia struggled to get his tee in the ground and then stood behind his ball, taking an exaggerated deep breath the gallery could hear clearly.
All players of Bhatia’s talent face this christening. Nearly all of them miss the cut. The world’s top-ranked junior and No. 9 amateur appears headed to that fate after opening with a 3-over 74 in the Valspar Championship, a tournament he is playing on a sponsor exemption.
It’s common for highly regarded amateurs to gain exemptions into tour events. But what Bhatia has planned in his future sets him apart. After attempting to make the Walker Cup team this September, the lefty plans to bypass his senior year of high school so he can turn professional. It’s a decision he made with his inner circle nearly four years ago.
“I’ve never liked school,” Bhatia said prior to his first round. “I’ve never been very smart, like sitting in a classroom, and I have the worst attention span when it comes to it. But I love being outside and love playing golf, just competing. So my dad was like, ‘You know what? Let’s just not go to college. Let’s not do it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ I mean, I’m an eighth-grader, of course I’m going to say no to school.”
It’s questionable whether Bhatia, who has been home-schooled, would be academically eligible to play college golf. He visited Stanford and Oklahoma State but wasn’t swayed to attend. He now faces an extremely rare situation where he will turn pro and attempt to combine sponsor exemptions with a spot in the second stage of Web.com Tour Q-School he should be guaranteed due to his lofty amateur ranking — all before turning 18 years old in January.
It’s a shallow pool who have taken this risk. Only two Americans in the top 100 of the world took this route — Tony Finau and Kevin Na — and both needed several years of mini-tour struggles before reaching the PGA Tour. There have been the odd talents like Rory McIlroy, who turned pro as a teenager and had quick success, but, as a whole, this group is known for early struggles. It was a teenage Justin Rose who missed his first 21 cuts and needed years of seasoning before emerging as a world-class talent. Some players like the now-infamous Ty Tryon make the move and are swallowed whole, which is perhaps the greatest fear.
Stephen Hamblin, executive director of the American Junior Golf Association, says that Bhatia’s decision to turn pro so early is extremely rare. Hamblin struggled to remember the last time a male player made the jump, citing that in the female game they usually have one or two players each year.
“We see college as a key part of the development process,” Hamblin said. “You start by playing at the local level, you move up to the national level, you play college golf and then some make the transition to the professional level.
“Having said that, I would never judge someone for making the decision to skip college. Once they make that decision, I look at it from a fan’s perspective. He’s a great kid and I will be rooting for him.”
There is little debating Bhatia’s ability. He was last year’s Rolex Player of the Year on the AJGA circuit, captured back-to-back Junior PGA Championships and recently won the Jones Cup to gain an exemption into the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic later this year. Bhatia performed admirably in round 1 of the Valspar despite hitting just four fairways on the tight, tree-lined course. The middle stretch of his round featured 11 bogey-free holes with two birdies. But Thursday was bookended by poor golf.
Regardless, it’s not a question of whether his trajectory should deliver him to the pro ranks; it’s a question of whether doing so this quickly will be a mistake.
Watching him on the range, he acts like he is ready. He carries around a TrackMan like a professional. His staff bag looks like a pro’s. He has the large inner circle. And his confidence borders on overwhelming. Bhatia said he came to Innisbrook planning to win a tournament that boasted the last three Masters champions and the world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
All of that adds up to Bhatia having little apprehension.
“I’m stepping up and I’m performing at the level I need to perform,” Bhatia said. “I feel like I have a really good plan and I’m ready to do it.”
There were two players Bhatia should talk to this week in Tampa. The first is Austin Connelly, a 22-year-old Canadian who skipped college to turn pro and now ranks 497th in the world. He has no PGA Tour status and has played most of his golf in Europe with moderate success. Connelly’s decision to turn pro early may not have worked out as planned, his 8-over 79 to open the Valspar being indicative of where he stands on the game’s landscape.
The other is Joaquin Niemann, a 20-year-old who had planned on playing at the University of South Florida before opting to turn pro. The Chilean took advantage of several sponsor exemptions, gained full status on tour and has made 19 of 26 cuts so far.
“At the beginning it was scary because I wasn’t sure if I would feel more pressure,” Niemann said after a first-round 69. “I recommend that everyone goes to school, but for me it was a tough decision because I was playing good and I got the opportunity.”
“So hopefully he can surround himself with a group of people that can guide him and he learns quick enough to make it, but he needs to realize it’s a tough road ahead. … The life of a golfer, especially if you don’t make it … it’s a tough road.” – Jon Rahm
It has worked out nicely so far for Niemann, but the feeling among players is that college is a critical step. Both Jon Rahm and Johnson, players who went to college, played practice rounds with Bhatia and agreed that he is a prodigious talent. They also agreed the move could be risky and the importance of college golf can’t be understated.
When asked whether his career would have panned out the same way if he didn’t go to college, Johnson didn’t hesitate: “College golf played a big, big part of me being on the tour,” he said. “You get good experiences, it’s a good time to develop your game. For me it definitely played a big part in my career. I wouldn’t be where I am today I don’t think without playing in college.”
Rahm complimented the teenager’s game, saying that Bhatia hits the ball far better than he did at age 17. He then cautioned the difficult path the young man is taking.
“I mean each one knows what’s best for themselves,” Rahm said. “Obviously I’ll never judge anybody for what they do. It’s a risky move, but I hope it pays off. He’s got the talent. Obviously he’s still 17, he’s going to have to grow up, his body will continue evolving. It’s a tough life here on the PGA Tour that I don’t know if I would have been able to make it if I would have turned pro when I was 18.
“So hopefully he can surround himself with a group of people that can guide him and he learns quick enough to make it, but he needs to realize it’s a tough road ahead. … The life of a golfer, especially if you don’t make it — luckily like I did — it’s a tough road. I have a lot of friends that are really good friends who are still trying to make it. They’re on the Latinoamérica Tour, Mackenzie Tour, Web.com Tour, and it’s a grind. The hardest thing is getting to the (PGA) Tour. Like I said, hopefully he makes it, hopefully it pays off, but as long as he’s aware that he’s going to have to work hard and be patient I think he’ll be fine.”
It’s a bold decision and there isn’t a perfect answer. If it takes Bhatia several years to reach the PGA Tour, that stretch will serve as his education. But if he doesn’t gain status early on, it could be confidence-busting.
Only time will tell.
Akshay Bhatia, who made his PGA Tour debut Thursday, talks with caddie Eric Bajas on the 16th tee during the first round of the Valspar Championship. Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA Today Sports, via Reuters
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