Rising Stars

19-year-old Akshay Bhatia claims his first Korn Ferry Tour win at season opener in the Bahamas


Tracy Wilcox

Akshay Bhatia's decision to bypass college and turn professional at 17, at the time, was met with its fair share of doubts. On Wednesday, a mere two years later, the lanky lefty left absolutely no doubt by winning his first Korn Ferry Tour event in epic fashion.

Bhatia, who will turn 20 in 12 days, claimed the KFT season opener, The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, by shooting a final-round seven-under 65. He birdied the 15th, 17th and 18th holes, an emphatic door-slamming that earned him a two-stroke victory over Paul Haley II. He was also inches from being a three-shot win, as Bhatia nearly holed out his approach shot for eagle on the par-5 18th:

This was the 19-year-old's first start as a KFT member, and just the sixth KFT start of his career. Bhatia spent the bulk of his last two seasons relying on sponsor's exemptions into PGA Tour events. While he mostly struggled, he did manage a T-9 finish in the 2020 Safeway Open and a T-30 at the 2021 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He also made the weekend at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines after qualifying, ultimately finishing in a tie for 57th.

That was enough for Bhatia to earn KFT status as he finished between 151-200th in the 2020-'21 FedEx Cup standings. He's now parlayed that into a season-opening win, which puts him that much closer to a PGA Tour card. Should he go on to win two more times in 2022, he will earn an immediate promotion to the PGA Tour for the remainder of this season in addition to earning a full exemption for next season.

Bhatia began Wednesday's final round three shots back of solo leader Corey Shaun, who stood at 10 under after 54 holes. That gap was quickly closed when Bhatia went out in three-under 33, which he followed up with a back-nine 32 to finish at 14 under, two clear of Haley. Shaun finished at 10 under after posting an even-par 72.

Making the win all the more impressive was the fact that Bhatia did it with a woman on his bag whom he met on Instagram. Presleigh Schultz confirmed earlier in the week she knew nothing about golf. Bhatia direct messaged her prior to last April's Valero Texas Open, and eight months later she was carrying his bag for a potentially life-changing win.

It's still early, but there seem to be two things nobody can question with Bhatia—his talent and his decision-making skills.