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Akshay Bhatia squanders six-shot lead, still wins Valero Texas Open in playoff; next stop Masters

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    Written by Associated Press

    SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Akshay Bhatia nearly celebrated too soon Sunday, hurting his left shoulder while pumping his arms on a 12-foot birdie to force a playoff. He recovered to make birdie on the first extra hole and win the Valero Texas Open over hard-luck Denny McCarthy to earn a trip to the Masters.

    It was a wild finish on so many levels.

    McCarthy was six shots behind going to the back nine at the TPC San Antonio when he birdied eight of the nine holes – including the last seven – making a 12-foot birdie for a 9-under 63. Bhatia had to make his birdie putt from the same range to have a chance.

    He made it for a 67, raising his arms to shake them in his clutch moment. And that's when he felt his shoulder – which he says has given him trouble before – pop out of its socket.

    Bhatia hit his tee shot and laid up with a 5-iron on the par-5 18th in the playoff.

    McCarthy, playing in his 174th PGA TOUR event without winning, was first to play and chunked a wedge so badly that he immediately hung his head. The ball came up some 20 yards short into the middle of a creek.

    And then Bhatia called for treatment, jogging off the course briefly to get his shoulder taped. He returned and hit a wedge to 6 feet. Needing three putts to win, he holed it to win for the second time on the PGA TOUR.

    “Man, what a crazy, crazy day,” Bhatia said.

    Akshay Bhatia wins in dramatic fashion at Valero

    The 22-year-old Bhatia, who turned pro five years ago, won at the Barracuda Championship last summer. It was held as an Additional Event during The Open Championship, so it did not get him into the Masters.

    This one did, his first trip to Augusta National. And it came 10 years after Bhatia played in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals at the home of the Masters. Now he gets to play on more than just the 18th green, and he fulfilled his mother's wish.

    “This is awesome,” he said. “It's hard to win out there as it showed today. My mom's birthday was April 1 and her wish was to go to the Masters.”

    Akshay Bhatia's interview after winning Valero

    McCarthy had already earned his spot from finishing in the top 50 in the world last year, but all that mattered in this moment was that elusive PGA TOUR trophy. He lost in a playoff last year at the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday to Viktor Hovland.

    This might have been even more crushing given the circumstances. McCarthy looked to have no chance after Bhatia, who started the final round with a four-shot lead, birdied three of the opening four holes and stretched his advantage to six shots at the turn.

    There was a two-shot swing on the 10th when Bhatia missed a 5-foot par putt and McCarthy, one of the best putters on tour, holed an 18-footer for birdie. Bhatia answered with a birdie on the 11th, and then it was the McCarthy Show the rest of the way.

    He made a 30-footer on the 12th, drilled a 5-iron on the long par-3 13th to 4 feet, made from 10 feet on the par-5 14th, holed a 40-foot chip on the 15th and closed within one shot with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th.

    Bhatia missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the reachable par-4 17th – McCarthy got up-and-down from the rough for birdie – and they were tied going to the 18th.

    McCarthy made his birdie putt first, and stood to the side, as close as he has been to winning. And then Bhatia delivered a clutch moment of his own to match him at 20-under 268, forcing a playoff that ended badly for McCarthy.

    Akshay Bhatia and Denny McCarthy hole clutch putts to force playoff at Valero

    “Wish I could have had that wedge shot back there,” McCarthy said. “I backed off a couple times. There was a bug on my ball and some noise in the stands and a bug jumped back on my ball. I probably should have backed away again, but I thought I could kind of not let it distract me and maybe it did a little. Maybe a learning experience for me.”

    Rory McIlroy closed with a 66 to finish alone in third in his final event before the Masters, the one major keeping him from the career Grand Slam.

    McIlroy was runner-up and won in consecutive weeks in Dubai to start the year. This was his first top 10 on the PGA TOUR.

    “I'm in a better spot than I was a few weeks ago,” he said. “It was nice to see a round like this today, nice to play a golf tournament where ... I’m obviously going to finish quite a few shots behind Denny and Akshay, but still, I played pretty solid in some tough conditions.”

    He finished nine shots out of the playoff.

    Bhatia will be the first Drive, Chip & Putt finalist to play in the Masters. The competition has been one of several innovations from Augusta National. It also started the Asia-Pacific Amateur, where a young champion Hideki Matsuyama went on to capture a green jacket.

    “I got the goal I had in mind,” Bhatia said.

    That includes a trip to Augusta National. His also qualifies for the U.S. Open with his second PGA TOUR victory, and he moves to No. 34 in the world.

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