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Ties that bind Bhatia, Spieth at Valspar Championship

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Ties that bind Bhatia, Spieth at Valspar Championship

Bhatia debuts as TOUR Special Temporary Member; Spieth secured that status here in 2013

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Akshay Bhatia’s end-of-day routine includes watching PGA TOUR press conferences. He has already watched and rewatched the TOUR-focused Netflix documentary “Full Swing” and shares episode insights with ease. Bhatia is not only a student of the game but a fan of the game, with appreciation for its history and context.

    After fielding questions in his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday at the Valspar Championship, the 21-year-old took a moment to soak in the scene.

    “I watch those every night,” said a glowing Bhatia. “It was cool to be up there.”

    When it comes to the game’s highest level, Bhatia has earned a seat at the proverbial table. This week, he accepted PGA TOUR Special Temporary Membership, on the strength of a runner-up finish at the Puerto Rico Open that pushed him past the non-member FedExCup points threshold (175.228 points; No. 150 in 2022) – which also earned him a spot at the Valspar. He has earned a spot in a conditional category on the TOUR’s Priority Ranking and can also accept unlimited sponsor exemptions this season.

    It’s a full-circle moment for Bhatia, who made his first TOUR start at the 2019 Valspar Championship as an amateur. He was just 17 at the time, memorably noting in a press conference that year that he didn’t understand the term “adversity.” He has learned plenty about adversity over the last four years – missed cuts, injury, the inevitable learning curve as a professional golfer – but now returns to the Tampa suburbs with the chance to reflect on the journey.

    Akshay Bhatia on what it means to earn PGA TOUR status

    As Bhatia departed the media center Tuesday at Innisbrook Resort (Copperhead), he ceded the stage for Jordan Spieth. Bhatia isn’t shy in his professional aspirations; he strives to reach world No. 1. That spot was once held by Spieth; the Texan aspires to return there as well.

    The moment served as a time capsule, an opportunity to look back before moving forward. The Valspar Championship uniquely serves as a common thread.

    Ten years ago, Spieth earned TOUR Special Temporary Membership via a T7 finish at the Valspar. He, like Bhatia, had finished runner-up at the Puerto Rico Open to play his way into the field.

    Like Bhatia this year, Spieth had spent time on the Korn Ferry Tour early in 2013. Spieth held no Korn Ferry Tour status after falling short at Second Stage of Q-School the year prior, then took advantage of a spot at The Panama Championship, finishing T7 on a sponsor exemption to play his way into the Astara Golf Championship in Bogota. He finished T4 to earn a spot in the next event – but he had already accepted a sponsor exemption to Puerto Rico. It was a decision matrix between continuing his run on the Korn Ferry Tour to bolster his chances at a TOUR card or honoring his commitment in Puerto Rico.

    He headed to Puerto Rico, thrived and played his way to Tampa. The rest is history.

    Ten years later, Spieth remembers that stretch vividly.

    “It was everything at the time,” Spieth said Tuesday. “I didn’t have any status anywhere, and I had made a decision not to go secure Korn Ferry Tour status this week prior and go to Puerto Rico … I wasn’t expecting to play this (Valspar) tournament at all, and I got up and down out of the front bunker on 18, made a 6- or 7-footer that I … knew was important.

    “That was huge. That opened up all the opportunities for the rest of the year that was a springboard for getting all the way to the TOUR Championship and then the Presidents Cup, and just really, really great memories that I wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for the finish to this event. It’s a special tournament that -- I don’t forget about that.”

    Spieth proceeded to win the John Deere Classic with a memorable bunker hole-out; he was just 19 at the time. He turned 20 shortly thereafter, then finished T2 at the TOUR Championship and No. 7 in the FedExCup. Just like that, he had reached the brink of stardom, only to continue with back-to-back major titles at the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open. He reached world No. 1 that August.

    Expectations can be tricky to reach in that setting, and Spieth spoke Tuesday of the game’s inherent fine line – between good and great, between even the TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour.

    “it’s little things,” Spieth said. “It’s always just in the margins. It’s such a hard sport. When you feel like you’re mastering it, there’s nothing cooler. But that’s what’s fun about this sport as well … you can get knocked down, you can feel the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs, and if you’re willing to want to play that game, that risky game in it, then that reward is massive.

    “That’s the goal, is to try to get to that level. There are a lot of steps to get there.”

    Bhatia didn’t shy away from those steps, even as the early results were uneven. He missed the cut in his first seven TOUR starts, also falling short at Second Stage of Q-School in 2019. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, complicating his path further.

    But Bhatia maintained a steadfast belief that his path, although unconventional, was the right one. Even if it took four years to earn his spot at the highest level, he still had a head start on his same-age peers in learning the professional ropes. He began working with mental coach Greg Cartin during the pandemic hiatus, as well, providing further clarity in his pursuit.

    Bhatia won on the Korn Ferry Tour in his first start of 2022, The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, but adversity struck once again that spring, in the form of a back injury. He failed to record another top-10 that season and fell shy of a TOUR card via the season-long points race.

    But by now, Bhatia has seen all sides of the game. He’s a seasoned veteran. That worked to his advantage in Puerto Rico, notably when his tee shot caught a fairway bunker on the par-4 17th hole Sunday, coming to rest just inches from the lip. But he played fearless, a full swing with an aggressive line at the pin. It felt like something Spieth might try.

    Bhatia’s ball flew just into the back fringe, and he converted a 15-footer for his third of four consecutive closing birdies. He learned just off No. 18 green that he had fared well enough for TOUR Special Temporary Membership – and also a return to the Valspar via his top-10 finish.

    Akshay Bhatia's wild bunker escape yields birdie at Puerto Rico

    Tuesday afternoon, Bhatia rewatched a clip of his 17-year-old self, meeting the media at the 2019 Valspar. Bhatia at 17 might not have been familiar with the term “adversity,” but he asked for clarification so as to properly answer the query.

    “Trouble,” the interviewer explained.

    “It’s golf and it’s life,” Bhatia responded at the time. “Everything goes up and down in this game. You can hit it as good as you can, you can shoot even par. You can hit it terrible and go out and shoot 68 … Everything is just learning, a learning process in this game.”

    Bhatia’s learning process has brought him back.

    “I didn’t know it was going to happen, but I knew it was going to happen at some point in my career,” Bhatia said Tuesday. “For it to come full circle back to the Valspar Championship, it’s a story you can’t write.”

    Spieth’s dream came true at the 2013 Valspar; he needed a two-way T13 or better, which ultimately required playing his final two holes in 1 under. Chip-in birdie on 17. Up-and-down par on 18.

    Not only was it vintage Spieth, but it was the moment that launched a career.

    “You get a job, right?” Spieth said Tuesday. “You’re trying out to try and get a job. Without playing well there, there’s no security if you don’t have at least temporary status somewhere. It gave me a lot of freedom, and tournaments wanting to give me starts, and essentially being able to play a full schedule until eventually winning later that year. So it was a massive opportunity, because of this event.”

    Opportunities are only what you make of them. Bhatia intends to follow Spieth’s lead.

    “Since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to be on the PGA TOUR and dreamed about being the best player in the world,” Bhatia said. “And now I have the opportunity to do it.”

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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