Akshay Bhatia was still a long way from winning the U.S. Amateur. But one of the favorites entering this week’s championship at Pebble Beach saw his title hopes spoiled on Wednesday due in part to a rules technicality involving his caddie.
After qualifying as the 11th seed in stroke play, the 16-year-old lefty from Wake Forest, N.C., who had won a trio of significant junior titles this summer, all in dramatic fashion, fell to Bradford Tilley in their first-round match in 19 holes, losing the 17th and 19th holes with bogeys. The frustration of letting a match slip away was compounded by the circumstances that led to the match’s unusual conclusion.
With the match all square on the par-5 14th hole, Bhatia and his caddie, Chris Darnell, stopped to use a bathroom after Bhatia hit his second shot on to the green. Bhatia eventually walked up to the hole, but Darnell saw what he thought was a USGA official in golf cart. In the interest of not lagging behind, Darnell asked to get a ride to the green, hopped on the cart and “thought nothing of it.”
However, the cart driver was not a USGA official but a volunteer wearing U.S. Amateur apparel, and according to the conditions of competition, players and caddies are prohibited from riding on any form of transportation during a round, unless authorized. A rules officials noticed Darnell in the cart and eventually assessed Bhatia with an adjustment penalty. Rather than win the hole with a birdie 4 to go 1 up against Tilley, the match remained all square.
Bhatia won the 15th hole with a par to go 1 up, but then stumbled down the stretch. Afterward, he impressively held his emotions together in what could have been a situation where disappointment might get the best of him.
“What can you do? I’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in this tournament, so I’m not too upset about it,” Bhatia told Golf Channel. “It’s just frustrating because I deserved to win the match. That wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I can’t do anything about it.”
Darnell told Golf Channel he saw that other caddie in his group do the same thing on the ninth hole, so he didn’t think anything of it.
The loss ends a summer in which Bhatia won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley and the AJGA Polo Golf Classic in runaway fashion, then dramatically chipped in for eagle on the 72nd hole to repeat as the winner of the Junior PGA Championship. He also reached the finals of the U.S. Junior Amateur.
Bhatia wasn’t the only prominent golfer to find themselves bumped from match-play early. Braden Thornberry, Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa, the top three players on the World Amateur Golf Ranking, all were eliminated on Wednesday. Thornberry fell to Jesus Montenegro, the No. 998 ranked player, 2 and 1. Morikawa, lost to John Augenstein, in 19 holes; and Suh fell to Harrison Ott, 1 up.