Insider: Patel carved his own path to the Tour

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Patel currently ranks 13th on the Tour money list.
March 06, 2013
Jeff Shain,

In a way, Bhavik Patel’s decision wasn’t much different than that undertaken by hundreds of college athletes before him.

Eyes firmly affixed on the future, a kid walks into his coach’s office and says he’s decided to leave school early and pursue the next level. Dozens of NFL and NBA hopefuls do it each year.

But here’s where Patel puts a twist on things. Rather than turn pro right away, the California native parted ways with Fresno State to subject himself to nine more months on the amateur stage.

“It was the right time to get out,” Patel says now. “My game wasn’t really getting anywhere.”

The results might be tough to debate at this point. After earning a Tour card in his first qualifying try, Patel needed just two starts to record his first top-10 finish by placing sixth at last week’s Colombia Championship.

Rounds of 68-66 gave Patel a share of the 36-hole lead in Bogotá. Though eventually no one could keep pace with Patrick Cantlay, he fought back from a couple of wobbly starts on the weekend.

“I think it was huge,” Patel said from this week’s Chile Classic, where he’ll try to keep the momentum going in the final leg of the opening Latin American Swing. “I know I can compete out here. I was really impressed with the way I was able to fight back.”

Unlike Cantlay, who turned heads as a UCLA freshman when he tied for 21st at the U.S. Open and shot 60 on a sponsor exemption at Hartford, Patel has taken the scrappier road up the ranks.

Lightly recruited out of high school in Bakersfield, Calif., he accepted on the spot when Fresno State came with a late offer. Patel went on to become a two-time All-Western Athletic Conference selection. In 2009, he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur before falling to Byeong-Hun An.

Though Fresno State coach Mike Watney pretty much left Patel’s swing alone, he gets credit for teaching him about the mental side of the game.

Exhibit A: Nick Watney, Mike’s nephew, who hit his stride in college and now owns five PGA TOUR victories.

“I’d go to [Mike’s] office every day and talk about the game, how Nick got to where he is,” Patel said. “He told me that every year, you need to make sure you improve a little bit. If I could get on a good practice regimen and practice hard, he had no doubt I could play as my profession.”

Patel won the California State Amateur before his senior year, then shot his career low round with a 63 at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational on the way to a seventh-place finish. As fall ended, though, Patel sensed he needed to move on.

With the support of his parents, Patel left school. But instead of chasing Monday qualifiers or testing the minitours in 2012, he went back to Bakersfield and put in long hours at the practice facility.

His reasoning was twofold: First, he wanted to defend his California State Am title and take one more crack at going deep at the U.S. Amateur. And he realized he had some shortcomings in his game that he needed to work out.

“I stuck with my game plan,” said Patel, who detoured just long enough to get his first Tour taste as an amateur, missing the cut at the TPC Stonebrae Championship.

“I wasn’t going to listen to anybody else; I wanted to do what was best for myself. A lot of guys told me I should turn pro, but I wasn’t ready. I knew what I wanted to do, and I did it.”

The first part of the plan didn’t quite work out as planned, as both his State Am title defense and U.S. Amateur venture ended early. He had hoped to use those as a means to bypass the prequalifying stage of PGA TOUR qualifying, but it turned out not to matter.

Patel tied for ninth in prequalifying, third in the first stage and runner-up in the second stage, earning a ticket to PGA West for the finals. Though he didn’t get a direct pass to the PGA TOUR, he didn’t card anything worse than a 72 to earn his Tour spot.

“It’s exciting,” Patel said. “You can’t get too ahead of yourself out here. Patience is a big thing.

“When I got to Panama [for the season opener], I was a little antsy. My first event out here, I kind of put too much pressure on myself [and missed the cut]. Then when I got to Colombia, I told myself to take it easy.”

After sharing the 36-hole lead, Patel’s third round got off to an auspicious start when his first swing hooked out of bounds on the way to a triple bogey. Rather than let it affect him, though, he played the rest of the round in 5-under par.

“I knew there were plenty of chances to come back,” he said.

Patel’s adjustment also has been aided by counsel from Arjun Atwal and Daniel Chopra, a pair of PGA TOUR winners who share Patel’s Indian heritage. Their advice: Don’t get too caught up in golf’s weekly highs and lows.

“I kind of knew that, but hearing it from those guys was good, too,” Patel said. “They’ve been out here a long time.”

It’s a long road ahead for Patel, but he’s off to a good start.

“Once we get back to the States, things should mellow out,” he said. “There’s no ho-hum player out here. You’ve got to go low and do some great playing.”