A professional career looms for junior phenom Akshay Bhatia in the not-too-distance future, but first things first. The 17-year-old from Wake Forest, N.C., has the 2019 goal of being the first high schooler to make the U.S. Walker Cup, and he took a big step toward accomplishing it on Sunday with his victory at the Jones Cup Invitational.
Bhatia defeated Davis Thompson in an impromptu sudden-death playoff after the final round of the 54-hole tournament at Ocean Forest Golf Club on St. Simons Island, Ga., was washed out by heavy rain. Bhatia and Thompson, a college sophomore at Georgia, shared the 36-hole lead at two-under 142, with tournament officials having the pair go out between rain drops to settle things.
Playing Ocean Forest’s par-4 first hole, Thompson hit his drive into the water left off the tee, giving Bhatia the advantage even as his tee shot found the right rough. Thompson hit his third shot on the green, but couldn’t hole a 35-foot putt to save par, allowing Bhatia to take the title with a two-putt par of his own.
Bhatia’s resume includes several impressive junior titles—the AJGA’s Rolex Tournament of Champions and Polo Golf Junior Classic, the Junior PGA Championship and the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley—but this was the lanky lefty’s first in a national amateur tournament after winning the AJGA’s player of the year honor in 2018. It comes just two months after Bhatia was one of 16 golfers to participate in a U.S. Walker Cup team practice session conducted by the USGA at Florida’s Seminole Golf Club, ahead of this September’s match against Great Britain & Ireland at Royal Liverpool.
No. 12 on the World Amateur Golf Ranking prior to his victory, Bhatia says he plans to forgo college golf and turn pro shortly after his 18th birthday next January. He'll get at least one test run at playing on the PGA Tour in the fall as his Jones Cup victory earns him an exemption into the RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club. In the meantime, he says he still had plenty to accomplish as he focuses on playing top amateur this year.
“I have a lot of confidence in my game,” Bhatia told Golf Digest last fall. “I’m excited to see what I’m capable of.”