Akshay Bhatia wins The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic
4 Min Read
GREAT EXUMA, BAHAMAS - JANUARY 19: Akshay Bhatia poses with the trophy after the final round of The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay on January 19, 2022 in Great Exuma, Bahamas. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)
Written by Zach Dirlam @KornFerryTour
Get to know: Akshay Bhatia
GREAT EXUMA, The Bahamas– Four years ago, a 19-year-old sensation became one of the youngest winners in Korn Ferry Tour history at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, with the victory propelling the incredible talent to a multi-win PGA TOUR career and a top-25 Official World Golf Ranking.
Akshay Bhatia, 156 yards out with a pitching wedge in hand in the middle of Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Club’s par-5 18th fairway, knocked his approach inside of a foot and sealed the first PGA TOUR-sanctioned victory of his career, nearly repeating the feat accomplished by Sungjae Im in 2018.
“I reflected back on (2021) U.S. Open (qualifying),” Bhatia said. “I hit a pitching wedge to like 3 feet, 4 feet, so I was just trying to do the same thing. For it to hit the flag and have a tap-in was awesome. Golf is crazy.”
Twelve days shy of his 20th birthday, Bhatia became the third-youngest player to win a Korn Ferry Tour event since the Tour’s establishment in 1990. The only players who were younger? Jason Day, who won the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic at 19 years, 7 months, and 26 days old, and Im, who was 19 years, 9 months, and 17 days old when he won his Korn Ferry Tour debut at the same event Bhatia went from teenage phenom to Korn Ferry Tour champion.
YOUNGEST WINNERS IN KORN FERRY TOUR HISTORY
Bhatia, a native Californian who plays from Wake Forest, North Carolina, fired a bogey-free 7-under 65 in Wednesday’s final round. It was one of three bogey-free scorecards in the final round, and one of three scores of 65 or better posted all week.
The riveting back nine, highlighted by birdies on three of the closing four holes (Nos. 15, 17, and 18), took Bhatia to 14-under par for the tournament. Bhatia began the day three strokes off the lead, but ended it two strokes ahead of runner-up finisher Paul Haley II, who played alongside him all afternoon and carded a bogey-free 4-under 68.
Bhatia’s remarkable up-and-down birdie from a sidehill lie behind a greenside bunker at the par-5 15th may have been the key moment of his round, but his field-leading 22nd birdie of the week on the 72nd hole dazzled golf fans around the world.
“I don’t know how I managed my emotions, but I did. I felt really calm. (No.) 15 tee, we were waiting a while, so I just sat and looked at the ocean,” Bhatia said. “This place is really calm, peaceful … the aura about this place leads into why I’m so calm.
“To play against these guys, guys who have been out here forever, past PGA TOUR winners and players, it’s just awesome,” Bhatia continued. “For me to be able to mentally and physically compete and win at one of the highest levels in golf, it’s something I’ll cherish for a while.”
Shortly after the 2019 Walker Cup, where Bhatia became the first golfer still in high school to represent the United States, he made an unorthodox choice and passed on collegiate golf opportunities, electing instead to turn professional at 17 years old. Having made his first PGA TOUR start as an amateur at the 2019 Valspar Championship in March, and making his Korn Ferry Tour debut a month later at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Championship, Bhatia made six TOUR starts in 2019-20, and 11 last season.
“The first year I turned pro is one of the worst years I’ve had playing golf,” Bhatia said. “I struggled mentally. I missed every cut. I had a lot of people expecting me to play well and it didn’t happen. But with COVID hitting, obviously it was hard for everyone, but it was a blessing for me, because I got to sit back, talk to my coach, realize where I’m at in my life.”
Bhatia accrued enough non-member FedExCup points last season on the PGA TOUR for a spot in the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Finals. Although Bhatia missed two cuts and finished T41 in the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance, playing in the Finals gave him an exemption for the Final Stage of the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying Tournament. A T63 finish there left him without guaranteed starts for 2022.
Playing out of the “Finishers 151-200 in the 2020-21 FedExCup Standings” category, Bhatia’s priority number got him in the field this week for his fifth Korn Ferry Tour start.
Bhatia no longer has to worry about whether his number will be enough for him to play. Instead, Bhatia is turning his sights to the fastest route to the PGA TOUR.
“I’ve just climbed the mountain slowly and slowly and slowly,” Bhatia said. “I’m just excited to play next week. I have never had a schedule. To be able to have a schedule and look forward to playing certain events … there’s all those things I get to look forward to this year.
“I would like to win three and get promoted to the PGA TOUR, so I guess that’s my goal.”
The 2022 Korn Ferry Tour season continues Sunday, January 23 with the opening round of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic at The Abaco Club.