Akshay Bhatia overcomes bizarre injury to win Texas Open, earn Masters invite

Akshay Bhatia celebrates after making a putt.

Akshay Bhatia's second PGA Tour win qualified him for the Masters.

Raj Mehta/Getty Images

Akshay Bhatia‘s rise through pro golf has been anything but ordinary.

He was a junior prodigy, but couldn’t succeed initially at the pro level. Then he was Korn Ferry winner, but couldn’t earn his PGA Tour card. Finally, he was a PGA Tour winner, but couldn’t get into his first Masters.

But Sunday, there was no doubt. Akshay Bhatia has officially arrived, but not without a little controversy from a bum shoulder.

Despite being four-under for the day as he played the 72nd after starting the day with a four-shot lead, Bhatia could only watch as Denny McCarthy erased his once six-shot lead with a back nine 28 at the Valero Texas Open, draining the last of seven straight birdies on the 18th green.

While Bhatia said he had run through all the possible scenarios, but there was no way he could have foreseen what happened next.

He calmly stepped up and drained a 12-footer to match McCarthy at 20 under with a Sunday 67, but apparently injured his shoulder in celebration.

As Bhatia walked up to his third after laying up on the first playoff hole, his trainer pulled him away from cameras to tend to the shoulder, which Bhatia said had “popped out” during his 72nd-green celebration.

“This shoulder I’ve had some issues with and yeah, when I made that putt and I kind of raised my arm, it kind of came out of socket and went back in,” Bhatia said.

He already had left himself 85 yards for his third on the par-5, but McCarthy was about to open the door.

The only mistake the 10th-year pro made all day was when he dunked his third on the playoff hole from just 100 yards in the creek short of the green.

“Wish I could have had that wedge shot back there,” McCarthy said after. “I backed off a couple times. There was a bug on my ball and some noise in the stands and a bug jumped back on my ball. I probably should have backed away again, but I thought I could kind of not let it distract me and maybe it did a little.”

When Bhatia emerged from working with his trainer to care for the injured shoulder, he finally hit his third shot.

“Thankfully [my trainer] was still around and taped it up good and it felt good hitting that wedge shot,” he said. “I appreciate [him] very much.”

He stuffed it to six feet to seal his second Tour win. The win gets Bhatia into the Masters as the last qualifier, becoming the sixth player in the last seven years to win in his final start before the year’s first major to qualify.

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“It’s a dream come true,” Bhatia said. “I didn’t know what to expect this week. This is just kind of a week where I played a couple times and I was a little more comfortable.

“Every kid dreams about going to Augusta National whether you’re a patron, whether you’re a player, caddie, whatever it may be. Just being able to go there and feel the aura of the place at such a young age was awesome.”

The 22-year-old said Saturday night that a win would be great for him, but he had his sights set on what the victory would bring him.

“It gets me closer to my goal. Yeah, it doesn’t mean the world to me,” he said. “I didn’t grow up playing on the PGA Tour necessarily to win just PGA Tour events, I grew up playing and dreaming of winning majors.”

But Sunday, he was all about the task at hand. Over the past year, which has seen him go from holding Korn Ferry status, to a special temporary member on the PGA Tour, to a PGA Tour winner, Bhatia has honed his focus on his mental game, including adding a sports psychologist to his team.

One of the things he does before each round now is write a message to himself on his wrist.

Sunday’s message? “WTW” for wire-to-wire. He led the tournament for every round after opening with a 63 on Thursday. His victory is the first wire-to-wire win on Tour since Lee Hodges at the 2023 3M Open.

“Just kind of pictured a straight wire from the first hole to the 72nd hole and I just tried to really stick to that, and my caddie did an awesome job reminding me of that,” Bhatia said.

It completes a long road for Bhatia, who turned pro at 17 in 2019, but didn’t earn Korn Ferry status until 2022. He won in his first start as a KFT member, but didn’t earn his PGA Tour card that year. He then earned extra PGA Tour starts last year, which paid off in an opposite-field event win at the Barracuda Championship. It was an official Tour win, but didn’t qualify Bhatia for the Masters.

Bhatia looked in control the entire round, rebounding from his lone bogey at the 10th by draining an 18-foot birdie putt on the 11th.

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McCarthy was the only player to start within seven shots of Bhatia and turned it into a true two-horse race on the second nine. Powered by a Tour record putting performance, McCarthy birdied the 10th, parred the 11th and then birdied his way to the clubhouse to catch and force Bhatia to make his own birdie on top of him on the 18th after both players had laid up on the par-5.

“You feel like you’re kind of losing, right? You’re losing the golf tournament,” Bhatia said. “This guy’s making a ton of birdies, I’m not making any mistakes and yet, you know, I was tied for the lead going into the last.”

McCarthy’s final 13-foot make on the 72nd hole was his 92nd putt of the week, tying the PGA Tour record for fewest putts over 72 holes. NBC Play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks said that McCarthy needed to one-putt the final five greens to keep up his average of 23.3 putts per round for the week. He did one better thanks to a chip-in birdie at the 15th.

McCarthy’s final-round 63 was the lowest of the day by three shots, but not enough to break through for his first Tour title.

Both players finished nine shots clear of third place, which was claimed by World No. 2 Rory McIlroy after a final-round 66.

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