Mexico Open at Vidanta

Vidanta Vallarta

The Sentry

Every golfer can commiserate with Akshay Bhatia's bad break and walk of shame

January 07, 2024

Ben Jared

KAPALUA, Hawaii — It took three minutes for heartbreak and like most heartbreaks he didn’t see it coming.

Akshay Bhatia’s opening drive looked perfect, and we know that because he picked up his tee before the ball reached its peak as it moved from right to left in the sky, and those surrounding the first box saw the trajectory and Bhatia’s approval and cheered. It was an auspicious start to a round dangling a life-changing opportunity, and the 21-year-old’s drive showed he was ready to grab it. Three minutes later, that life-changing opportunity remained visible but became a lot damn harder to reach.

There’s not much in common between them and us. They are the world’s best, we are decidedly not. Their clubs are free, we pay thousands looking for a solution to a question we’ll never answer. Their clothes are tailored and adorned with sponsors, ours are purchases made with shop credit that are either too big or too small but never quite right. This is their profession, this is our recreation. But there are some experiences that all golfers know, and everyone who’s plays this stupid game is all too familiar with the pain Bhatia felt Sunday at The Sentry, losing his drive and having to make the walk of shame back to the first tee.

You don’t see that much on tour, the walk of shame. When players hit their ball into trouble they either recognize the odds of finding said ball are slim or a marshal has signaled that ball has likely said goodbye. Unfortunately for Bhatia, there was no indication from Kapalua’s workers that anything was amiss, and even when the final group got closer and saw a group volunteers clad in pinkish lavender looking desperately in the higher grasses there was a belief the shot could have been Xander Schauffele’s. But then the young man got word the search party was for him and he and his caddie began clawing through the weeds, his indignation suppressed by the fear of the repercussions now barreling his way.

We don’t have volunteers looking for our wayward drives, but we’ve all been there. When your shot begins to leak and you wonder, “Oh boy, not good,” only for someone in your group to say, “No no, you’re fine, it opens up over there.” For a moment you breathe a sigh of relief, thinking all is not lost. But that relief is made worse when you realize it doesn’t open over there, and there’s no white speck to be found, and because you granted yourself that initial solace the lost ball feels even worse. Golfers can take a jab if they know it’s coming; sucker-punches, well, sometimes there's no coming back. Worse, you’re upset at your playing partner for the false sense of security. This is why it’s not good to hope.


Tracy Wilcox

Bhatia had help, from a half dozen volunteers, from Schauffele and Chris Kirk and their caddies, from the roaming scorer and essentially anyone else in the vicinity. But it’s never quite the same, is it, you searching versus everyone else? They mean well, they’ll slash their club at the tall stuff or trample down what they can with their feet. They’re also not willing to get their hands dirty or bend over, because ultimately it’s not their problem and frankly it betters them if the ball is lost, considering this is ultimately a competition. Bhatia? On his hands and knees, the bill of his hat barely visible from the fescue, turning everything upside down like you do with the couch when the remote has vanished, because Bhatia had only three minutes before the judge would issue the verdict.

That’s what the Rules of Golf give us, three minutes to find what threatens not to be found. It’s never three minutes though. Even the coldest SOBs give their opponents a little more latitude, for that is the grace they hope to receive. The same goes for the PGA Tour, because after three minutes the ball had not been found yet the search continued. Conversely, you also don’t get forever, especially when you’re playing in the final group for $3.4 million and a Masters trip, and whatever time Bhatia was given was finally up. He came out of the grass, looked down, glanced at the green and turned the other way, making the long walk uphill to the tee that might as well have been a mile away.

His caddie was with him, but really, Bhatia was alone, with his thoughts and his vexation and the reality that today might be over before it started. And, more than anything else, every golfer can commiserate with that feeling. We look forward to our round all week, to have fun and see our friends and just have some peace and quiet, but, let’s be honest, we look forward to playing and, God willing, playing well … only for golf to laugh in our faces and dash our hopes and whisper, “Pray all you want but no one is saving you.” We tell ourselves to not let the opening drive get us down, that it’s just one shot and whatever we do do not let it get us down. But then we walk away with a crooked number and as we stand on the second tee we wonder why the hell we invest so much love into a sport that refuses to love us back.

To Bhatia’s credit, his next drive was fine, and he scrambled for double bogey. But the damage was done, with a compact leaderboard and the field setting the course on fire it was a mistake he could not make. By the time the final group reached the sixth tee Bhatia was four shots back and in a tie for 15th. He would finish T-14. For what it’s worth, Bhatia kept his head and spirits up. He continues to grind and chip away. Hope is never far from heartache in this sport. That’s perhaps the most painful part.