Akshay Bhatia was a teenage phenom in the golf world, bypassed college to turn pro at 17 and then had one of the worst seasons of his young golf life.
“I struggled mentally, I missed every cut,” he said Wednesday. “I had a lot of people expecting me to play well and it didn’t happen.”
But perhaps that rough start makes Wednesday’s win that much sweeter. Bhatia, just 12 days shy of his 20th birthday, shot a final-round seven-under 65 to win the Korn Ferry Tour’s Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay. He’s the third-youngest winner in the Tour’s history behind Sungjae Im and Jason Day, who were both a few months younger than Bhatia when they won. (Day was the youngest at 19 years, 7 months, 26 days.)
After turning pro in September 2019, Bhatia missed the cut in all six of his PGA Tour starts. Last season he made four cuts in 11 starts, his best finish a T9 at the Safeway Open.
Bhatia admitted he struggled when he turned pro, but when the pandemic hit it allowed him to take a step back and reflect.
“I got to sit back, talk to my coach, realize where I’m at in my life,” he said. “After that, you know, I’ve just climbed the mountain slowly and slowly and slowly.”
He missed back-to-back cuts on the Korn Ferry Tour in August 2021 but was T41 the next week at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, which gave him an exemption for the Final Stage of the Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying Tournament. He tied for 63rd and didn’t earn guaranteed starts, but his priority ranking got him into The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic. Now, after his win, he has Korn Ferry Tour membership for two years and is that much closer to a PGA Tour card.
On Wednesday, Bhatia entered the final round three off the lead and said his goal was to top 10, which would have been good enough for a start the following week. But that goal changed. His girlfriend, Presleigh Schultz, caddied for him, and on the last couple of holes he told her a top-10 was no longer the plan.
“I told her like this is my time, like this is my time to win,” Bhatia said.
On 18, Bahatia held a one-shot lead when his approach shot hit the flag stick, danced around the cup and nearly went in. After an easy birdie, Bhatia’s 14-under total was two better than Paul Haley II.
“I’m just excited to play next week,” he said. “I have never had a schedule. Just to be able to have a schedule and obviously look forward to playing certain events … there’s just all those things I get to look forward to this year. I would like to win three and get promoted to the PGA Tour, so I guess that’s my goal.”