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Akshay Bhatia is enjoying the fast track

He turned pro when many said he shouldn’t. For a year, it seemed like they were right.

April 26, 2022

John Loomis

The best juniors play in the U.S. Kids World Championships in Pinehurst, N.C., so my dad, Sonny, and my mom, Renu, flew us from our home in Los Angeles to North Carolina so that my sister, Rhea, and I could compete. My parents, who had grown up in London and Hong Kong, decided to raise us in North Carolina rather than chaotic Los Angeles. At the time, my dad had a tumor in his eye, and the doctors were more convenient in North Carolina. He’s blind in that eye now, but he’s doing well. —With Keely Levins

We moved to Wake Forest when I was 10. I started loving golf then. I liked being outside, and I wasn’t a big kid, so I appreciated that there was no contact. I wore my golf clothes to school so that I could go straight to the course. Everyone knew me as the golf kid.

We lived five minutes from a course. My sister went on to play college golf at Queens University in Charlotte. She and I played together a lot. There were kids to play with, too. I played in tournaments with older kids. I wasn’t a long hitter, so I had to be creative. I got around big carries by playing to other tee boxes. I was hitting driver off the deck when no other kids were doing it.

I stopped going to in-person school in sixth grade and switched to online. I was on the road too much. I started dominating junior golf. I became the first high schooler to compete for Team USA in the Walker Cup. I was always in contention, and I knew how to win.

I got my first PGA Tour start at the 2019 Valspar Championship in Tampa on a sponsor’s exemption. I was 17, an amateur. I missed the cut, but I had self-belief. I also had data on every aspect of my game, thanks to TrackMan. I had a good swing coach, George Gankas. I watched Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Matt Wolff all turn pro and believed I needed to do the same. I turned pro later that year thinking I was ready, but I was wrong.

When I turned pro instead of going to college, a lot of people said it was a bad idea, but my family stuck with me. My parents have sacrificed a lot. My dad stopped working and traveled with me during junior golf. My mom worked a lot to support the house and my golf. We still wouldn’t get a lot of family time when I was home because my mom was working so much. When I turned pro, my sister traveled with me. She rented cars and booked hotels because I wasn’t old enough. We sacrificed a normal family life, but we believed it was worth it. One day, I’ll repay my mom.

My first year as a pro, I got PGA Tour sponsor exemptions and missed every cut. I wasn’t making money, and I was spending a lot traveling. I was burning myself out. The pandemic, as awful as it was, saved me. Tournaments were shut down. I had to go home and figure it out. I was with Gankas, and we still talk, but I started working with Chase Duncan, who lives nearby. He’s like a second dad. We structured my practice and added shots to my game. Off the tee, I learned how to hit it low, a draw, and get extra carry. Before, I had only one stock driver shot. He and my mental coach, Greg Cartin, helped me see that you need to still feel OK after losing. In junior golf, I had a lot of success. In pro golf, I fail all the time. I had to learn about myself to survive it. I’m young, but that process made me mature a lot. Failing helped me learn. Winning helps, too.

A lot was stacked against me before my Korn Ferry win in the Bahamas in January, when I became the third teenager to win on that tour. Three weeks before the tournament, I dislocated my shoulder playing pickleball. My doctors wanted me to wait, but the pain wasn’t too bad. Before we left, my best friend and caddie, Jonas Hillyard, tested positive for COVID-19. My girlfriend, Presleigh Schultz, doesn’t play golf, but she was coming anyway, so I asked her to caddie. We met through Instagram in 2021. I sent her a direct message without having met her. She was at Texas A&M and came to the Valero Texas Open. We’ve been together since.

She’s a calm, happy person. We have this joke where we ask, “Are you nervous?” when we’re sitting on a plane and things like that. The other person laughs and says, “No.” Throughout the final round we kept it light by asking each other, “Are you nervous?” She got to feel the tension inside the ropes when a win was on the line. We’ll be telling people about that week forever.

Because of the win, I get to play over 20 events this year. My sister and parents are supporting me. I have Jonas on the bag. Presleigh travels with me. My cousin Anesh does my social media and comes to events. We’re in this together. When I turned pro, I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. Now, I have that self-belief again.