High schooler Akshay Bhatia is on the road to the pros
by Joe Giglio | photography by Smith Hardy
He’s only 17, but the list of Akshay Bhatia’s accomplishments on the golf course is already impossibly long. The precocious phenom from the town of Wake Forest has won a handful of junior tournaments and made the junior Ryder Cup and junior Presidents Cup teams.
There is, however, one thing Bhatia can’t do: wear contact lenses. “I can’t put them in,” Bhatia said. So Akshay, who’s just “Shay” to his family and friends, wears distinctive dark-rimmed eyeglasses instead. The “Buddy Holly meets Tiger Woods” kind of look makes Bhatia unmistakably recognizable on the golf course, even beyond his obvious skill for the game. The lefthander looks taller than his 6-foot frame because he is so slim (he only clocks in at 129 pounds). Despite his size, he has power off the tee and the unwavering confidence of a bank thief with his putter. Bhatia recently won his first national amateur tournament at the Jones Cup Invitational in Sea Island, Georgia. He’s already racked up several junior tournament titles, including Junior PGA championship in 2017 (with a record score) and again in 2018.
He is the top-ranked boys’ junior golfer in the world and has plans to turn professional once he turns 18. Unlike Woods, and most of the other top American players on the PGA Tour, Bhatia will skip college altogether. He has a plan and he’s ready, he says. “I’m playing really well right now and I feel like it’s the natural progression from the junior ranks to go pro,” Bhatia said. Bhatia, who has been homeschooled since eighth grade, has a full golf schedule this spring and summer. The U.S. Amateur Championship is in Pinehurst this August. A win there would guarantee Bhatia a spot in The Masters the following April. “That’s huge,” he says of the chance to play the top amateur tournament at the famous Pinehurst No. 2 course. “I know that course pretty well. A win there would be awesome.”
A youth tournament in Pinehurst is actually how Bhatia’s family ended up moving to North Carolina. His parents, Sonny and Renu, met in Northridge, California, and introduced golf to their kids at an early age. Akshay Bhatia and his sister, Rhea, who is four years older, were playing in a tournament in Pinehurst in 2009. On the drive back to RDU Airport from Pinehurst, his dad had an idea. “I just thought, wouldn’t it be great to come back and live here?” he said. The parents found a house in Wake Forest and moved here in 2011. “It just felt right,” Sonny Bhatia said. His talented son was born in California but he says he considers North Carolina home. “I’m 100 percent North Carolina. I’ve got the ‘y’all’ down and everything.” And he’s got golf down, too. It was shortly after the family got here that Akshay Bhatia had an important question for his dad. “I can still remember it, he woke me up in the middle of the night,” Sonny Bhatia said. “He said, ‘Dad, how do I become the best player in the world?’” The short answer: practice. He told his son that to be the best, you have to be the first one on the course and the last one to leave. “And that’s exactly what he does,” Sonny Bhatia said. “He practices and works on his game non-stop, absolutely non-stop.” With that work ethic, Akshay Bhatia has already cleared several golf milestones on the junior and amateur level, and he’s driven to accomplish even more at the pro level. “His goal is not just to be a PGA player,” his dad says. “He wants to be the number one player in the world.”