Great Exuma (The Bahamas), Jan 20 (IANS) Indian-American golfer Akshay Bhatia has become the third-youngest player to win a Korn Ferry Tour event since the Tour’s establishment in 1990 when he secured a two-stroke victory at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.
Bhatia, who shot a stunning bogey-free 7-under 65 in the final round on Wednesday, won the title 12 days shy of his 20th birthday, joining Australia’s former World No. 1 Jason Day and Korean star Sungjae Im as the only teenagers to win titles on the development circuit which is the pathway to the PGA TOUR.
Jason Day won the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic at 19 years, 7 months, and 26 days old, and Im was 19 years, 9 months, and 17 days old when he won his Korn Ferry Tour debut at the same event.
Bhatia finished the event with an aggregate score of 14-under 274 (69-72-68-65), ending ahead of Paul Haley II of the USA (74-67-67-68-276), who finished two strokes behind.
After making birdie on 17, Bhatia closed out his win in style. With 156 yards to the pin on the par 5 18th hole, he wedged his approach to inside of a foot to secure the first victory of his career and cement his status as one of ‘he game’s young rising stars.
“I reflected back on (2021) U.S. Open (qualifying),” Bhatia said after his win. “I hit a pitching wedge to like three feet, four 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.”
Bhatia, a native of California who plays from Wake Forest, North Carolina, produced 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 14th 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 was quoted as s”ying the PGA Tour. “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. Having made his first PGA TOUR start as an amateur at the 2019 Valspar Championship in March, and made 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.
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, 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.