News & Opinion

Bhatia, 17, begins shortcut to PGA Tour

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Kevin Na was too focused on his own work to notice the skinny teenager attracting a small gathering two spots behind him Tuesday on Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead practice range.

Akshay Bhatia is just 17, but he has built a portfolio that few junior golfers have ever achieved. He’s the only two-time boys’ winner of the Junior PGA Championship, adding three other elite junior titles last year. He was runner-up at the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Akshay Bhatia

Six weeks ago, Bhatia won the prestigious Jones Cup over some of the nation’s best collegiate talent. He comes to this week’s PGA Tour Valspar Championship not only as the world’s No. 1 junior, but ninth in the world amateur rankings.

This summer, he’s likely to become the first high-schooler to play for the U.S. Walker Cup team. After that, he figures to turn professional.

Had Na known he was just 10 feet away, he might have walked over and introduced himself.

Eighteen years ago, Na stood more or less in the same position as Bhatia. He wouldn’t recommend following his own footsteps.

“My recommendation is to go to college – for one semester,” Na said.

One semester? Good luck finding a college coach who would go for that, considering that the most important tournaments are in the spring. Even John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski get their basketball players for a full season.

That kind of misses Na’s point, though. See how it fits.

“If you want to go one year, go one year. But I recommend at least a semester,” Na said. “If you don’t want to go a semester – one month? I don’t know. Just to say you were there. I regret I didn’t do that.”

On the flip side, Joaquin Niemann hasn’t given the University of South Florida much thought since informing coaches a year ago that he wouldn’t become a Bull after all.

“I love being here,” Niemann said as he strolled across the Copperhead practice green. The 20-year-old Chilean parlayed sponsor exemptions into a PGA Tour card last year with a quartet of top-10 finishes.

“It was always my dream to be here, ever since I started playing golf,” Niemann said. “So now that I’m here, I’m really happy.”

Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., is on no less of a fast track. He doesn’t even have a college program hanging in the balance, quietly touring a couple of campuses but kindly telling any recruiters that he wasn’t college material.

Some folks just aren’t meant to sit at a desk.

“I’ve never liked school,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve never been very interested in sitting in a classroom, and I have the worst attention span when it comes to that.

“I just love being outside. I love golf, and I love competing. My dad said, ‘Let’s just not go to college. Let’s not do it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ I mean, you’re telling that to someone who never liked school.”

A casual glance through the top of the world rankings shows there’s no tried-and-true path. World No.1 Dustin Johnson went the distance at Coastal Carolina. Justin Thomas won a couple of national titles with Alabama. Rickie Fowler stayed at Oklahoma State long enough to play in two Walker Cups.

Tiger Woods logged three years at Stanford before deciding to say, “Hello, World.” Phil Mickelson stayed all four years at Arizona State, even after becoming the PGA Tour’s last amateur winner by capturing the old Northern Telecom Open in Tucson.

Jordan Spieth didn’t stay all that long at Texas, but logged three semesters and a national championship before turning pro.

Along similar lines, Rory McIlroy, who might have been the pride of East Tennessee State, owns four major titles and just captured the Players Championship. Justin Rose also did pretty well for himself after turning pro at age 17 – once he got past missing his first 20 cuts.

Then there’s Ty Tryon, who made headlines as the first teenager to make it through the old PGA Tour qualifying tournament in 2001. He quickly flamed out, caused in part by injuries, and tried to launch a comeback last year.

“I’m not saying college is a bad thing,” Bhatia said. “Some really great players have come out strong from playing four years of college. Winning the national championship has to be one of best feelings, to win something for your school and coach and team.”

Bhatia has been on a meteoric rise over the past 18 months, starting with a record victory at the 2017 Junior PGA. His total of 22-under 266 smashed the tournament record, as did his 11-under 61 in the second round.

“I told my dad prior to that tournament, I’ve just never played good enough to win a big event,” Bhatia said. “That week just changed my whole outlook on my game.”

That was merely the prelude to a huge 2018. He repeated as Junior PGA champion, chipping in on the 72nd hole for a one-shot triumph, and added victories at the Rolex Tournament of Champions, Polo Golf Junior Classic and Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. Not surprisingly, he was named the AJGA’s Player of the Year.

The Jones Cup put his name alongside former winners Thomas, Patrick Reed, Kyle Stanley, Beau Hossler and Luke List. Earlier this month, Bhatia was a last-minute entry at the Dustin Johnson World Junior and shattered the tournament record by five shots.

“I don’t know him personally,” Niemann said, “but I know what he’s been doing. I think he’s more than ready enough to come out here and play with the best players in the world.”

Jon Rahm got a taste of that Tuesday. Two holes into their practice round, Rahm busted a 5-wood well past Bhatia’s conservative 3-iron tee shot.

“He threw me a tee and said, ‘You might want to tee up and try to catch that ball,’ ” Bhatia said.

For his approach shot, Bhatia, a left-hander, ripped a 4-iron that stopped about 10 feet from the flagstick.

“I told him to hit it inside of that,” Bhatia said with a smile. “And he didn’t.”

Thursday brings the real test: his first round in a professional tournament (tee times). It probably won’t change his plans, but it’ll give him a good gauge as to where his game stands.

“I think he knows what he needs to do,” Niemann said. “Just make birdies and birdies and birdies, and he’ll be fine.”

Jeff Shain has been writing and podcasting about golf since 2000, including more than a dozen years at The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Email: Twitter: @jeffshain