Akshay Bhatia: The 22-year-old beanpole who just played his way into the Masters

Akshay Bhatia putts during the final round of the Valero Texas Open.  (Getty Images)
Akshay Bhatia putts during the final round of the Valero Texas Open. (Getty Images)

Summary

Akshay Bhatia lost a six-shot lead, then blew out his shoulder celebrating a birdie. Somehow he recovered to secure the final spot in this week’s field at Augusta National.

When Akshay Bhatia’s mother celebrated her birthday earlier this month, her one wish was that her son would get to play in the Masters. But with the tournament just days away, the beanpole lefty still hadn’t received one of the precious green envelopes that extends an invitation to play in the first major of the season.

He doesn’t need to check the mailbox anymore. On Sunday, Bhatia became the last player to secure a spot in this week’s field at Augusta National Golf Club—and he did it in mind-blowing fashion.

Bhatia’s delirious victory at the Texas Open, which included celebrating a birdie putt with such enthusiasm that he dislocated his own shoulder, didn’t merely punch his ticket to the first Masters of his career. It was also a crowning achievement for an up-and-coming 22-year-old who has been an object of fascination in the golf world ever since he turned pro as a teenager.

Bhatia might look more at home pouring cappuccinos in a Brooklyn coffee shop than pounding drives off the tee. He’s the rare professional golfer who wears glasses while he plays—an oversized pair of frames that are wider than his face. And he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 130 pounds, which might be true only after scarfing down a plateful of pimento cheese sandwiches.

But that slender build didn’t stop him from driving the ball an average of 317 yards last week, the eighth highest in the entire field. That helped Bhatia make history—even though this week won’t actually be his first trip to Augusta National. As a 12-year-old, Bhatia participated in the club’s Drive, Chip and Putt event for juniors, meaning he’s now the first player to compete in that event and eventually make it into the Masters.

“It’s one week of the year that everyone wants to be there," Bhatia said after clinching his spot. “I can’t wait to go back."

Bhatia looked all but certain to secure his second career PGA Tour victory until it nearly slipped from his grasp entirely. He entered the final round four strokes clear of the next closest player, Denny McCarthy. By the time they made the turn on Sunday, Bhatia was six strokes up.

Then McCarthy got unimaginably hot. He birdied eight of the final nine holes to card a 28 on the back nine. By the time he recorded the last of those, on the 18th, the pressure was suddenly on Bhatia. He had to sink an 11-footer for birdie just to force a playoff.

When Bhatia drained the putt, his Masters hopes were still intact. Unfortunately, his shoulder wasn’t. When the ball found the bottom of the cup, Bhatia pumped his first in the air so forcefully that he injured himself and had to be attended to by a trainer.

“My shoulder came out of the socket," he explained.

The good news for Bhatia was that shoulder didn’t have much more work to do. McCarthy chunked a shot into a creek on the first playoff hole, allowing Bhatia to cruise to victory.

For Bhatia, the win and ticket to Augusta marks a breakout moment for someone who has been viewed as a phenom for years. Back in 2019, he played in his first PGA Tour event as a 17-year-old. That same year, he became the youngest U.S. player in Walker Cup history before turning pro.

While he has shown flashes of his talent, such as a top-10 finish in a PGA Tour event in 2020, Bhatia has had to earn his way up. He reached his only previous major, the 2021 U.S. Open, after coming through a qualifying tournament. For the most part, he has played on minor circuits until a second-place finish at last year’s Puerto Rico Open made him a temporary member on Tour. Only when he won last year’s Barracuda Championship—also in a playoff—did he become a full member.

Those wins have sent Bhatia soaring in the world rankings. In the span of a year, he has gone from 279th to 34th, and the advanced metrics say that’s no fluke. He ranks fourth this season on Tour in strokes gained, which measures player performance relative to the competition.

Unlike so many other up-and-comers, though, Bhatia doesn’t simply bomb the ball and hope it lands on the fairway. His average 299-yard driving distance is a few yards above the Tour’s average, but it’s his pinpoint accuracy that has made him a threat off the tee. At the same time, his approach play has been elite while his once-disastrous putting has improved considerably.

Now Bhatia gets to put those skills to a completely new test. Next Sunday, he hopes his balky shoulder will be draped in a brand new green jacket.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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