ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — A disappointed Akshay Bhatia tapped in for a closing bogey, ending another start early on the PGA Tour. But this time, he didn't have to wait for some positive feedback from swing coach George Gankas, who also served this week as his caddie. As Bhatia handed his putter over, Gankas put his arm around his prized teen pupil and offered some reassuring words. And for good reason.
Bhatia's pair of 71s at the RSM Classic left him five shots off the cut line, but both teacher and student were confident the 17-year-old phenom was closer than that to booking a weekend tee time.
"I don't think there's anything to change," Gankas told GolfDigest.com. "I just think he's 17 years old. I think it's just a matter of time before things start flowing. He just needs more flow."
Gankas, caddieing for Bhatia for the first time, says he was happy to serve as a "security blanket" if anything popped up with his swing during play. But there certainly wasn't much to tweak there. Bhatia led the field in driving distance for 36 holes and ranked eighth in strokes gained/approach-the-green during a second round at Sea Island's Seaside Course, where he missed only two greens.
"I know I'm right there and my game's there for sure, it's just the mental part of it. I've just got to learn. That's the biggest thing," Bhatia said. "There's just different shots that you hit that normally you'd go for, but because of the atmosphere, you've got to err on the safe side. I'm learning a lot and it's definitely fun. I was happy to have George on the bag this week."
Bhatia gave himself plenty of chances, but ranked second-to-last in strokes gained/putting through 36 holes. That included a four-putt from 12 feet on No. 8 after he had pulled within one stroke of the cut line.
"The kid is just an unbelievable ball-striker," Gankas said. "He hits it hard, he hits it straight, he hits lots of greens, he hits it close. I don't know how many times we were inside 15 feet, but it felt like at least 12 times we were inside 15 feet and we didn't make one of them except for the three birdies that were all like two feet. So it was one of those things."
Bhatia, who posed for photos with several young—well, similarly aged—fans after his round, was making his fourth PGA Tour start on a sponsor's exemption since turning pro in September, but is still in search of a first made cut. He's also got an uncertain schedule after failing to make it past the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q school.
"I'm not sure, I'll sit down with the team and we'll see," Bhatia said of his upcoming schedule. "But I have three [PGA Tour] starts left and I'll definitely do some Mondays and maybe go to Europe and play some golf over there."
While Gankas was glad to fill-in on the bag, the in-demand instructor who also coaches Matthew Wolff says it won't be a common sight.
"But I did enjoy it and he's a great kid," Gankas said. "And I think he's going to be one of the best players in the world."