Akshay Bhatia, Running on Adrenaline, Comes Full Circle With Masters Invitation

The 22-year-old won the Valero Texas Open on Sunday to earn a trip to Augusta National, where he last competed a decade ago.
Apr 7, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Akshay Bhatia acknowledges the fans after winning on the first
Apr 7, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Akshay Bhatia acknowledges the fans after winning on the first / Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

AUGUSTA, Ga. — As the last man in the Masters field, Akshay Bhatia had to do some scrambling on Sunday night. Actually, it was his “team” that did the legwork.

They secured a rental house and arrangement for private airplane transportation and got him the necessary credentials to arrive at Augusta National for the first time as a tournament participant on Monday afternoon.

Bhatia, 22, didn’t get to Augusta until after 1:30 a.m. on Monday, a celebratory journey that left him exhausted and sleeping in. Who could blame him?

Bhatia’s playoff victory on Sunday over Denny McCarthy at the Valero Texas Open got him the last spot in the 89-player field and one he’d not have earned without that victory.

Akshay Bhatia wins the 2024 Valero Texas Open.
Akshay Bhatia punched his ticket to Augusta by winning the Valero Texas Open on Sunday. / Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Now he’s back at the place where he first came 10 years ago as a kid playing in Augusta National’s Drive, Chip & Putt event.

 “I slept in as much as I could,” Bhatia said less than an hour after arriving at the club Monday. “I didn't get much sleep. Still a lot of adrenaline. Then I got here ... just kind of got the lay of the land of Augusta. I haven't been here in a couple years and I truly haven't seen it as a tournament. It's pretty cool. There's a lot going on, for sure. I'm still learning a bunch.”

After his Drive, Chip & Putt appearance a decade ago, Bhatia returned one other time. In the fall of 2019, he was invited by a member to play the course.

As great as that experience was, it’s far different than playing the course during tournament week, for which he will need a quick learning curve to get ready for Thursday’s first round.

 Not that he’s all that worried.

“I think soaking in what just happened is important,” said Bhatia, who turned pro at 17, skipped college and won last year at the Barracuda Championship—a tournament that doesn’t come with a Masters invite. “You don't get to kind of have those opportunities too much. I waited seven, eight months to kind of get those feelings of singing in the car on the way to the airport and just kind of bouncing up and down on the plane ride.

“Today I'm still going to soak it in. Tomorrow is kind of, O.K., what's our goals for the week, and just get ready to tee it up. So it's another golf tournament. It's a very special tournament. But at the end of the day, one of us is going to win. So that's kind of my goal. And I'm excited to tee it up.”

Bhatia led wire-to-wire in San Antonio, which is a bit of a misnomer when you consider that he had a six-shot lead with nine holes to play and saw McCarthy—already in the Masters field—make putts from everywhere, eventually tying him.

In fact, Bhatia needed to make a lengthy putt of his own on the 18th green to force a playoff, and then saw McCarthy knock his approach in the water on the same hole, opening the door.

But even that was not without drama as Bhatia, who plays lefthanded, injured his left shoulder and needed treatment between shots. He said Monday he’s dealing with a shoulder issue for some time and it flared up as he celebrated the tournament-tying putt a few moments later.

So along with everything else, he’s having to make sure he gets it treated this week in addition to preparing for a demanding golf course.

And, Bhatia said, he had yet to really wrap his arms around all that had occurred in 24 hours.

“I really can't,” he said. “Just wire-to-wire is very hard to do, having a six-shot lead with nine holes to go, you feel pretty good about yourself. I was playing really good all day, and Denny just kind of found this fire in him. And when a guy shoots 28 on the back, makes—I think he had seven one-putts on the back nine, it's pretty impressive.

“Just to be standing here, it's amazing, and just having the opportunity, the members giving us the opportunity to play their golf course is certainly special, and I can't wait to be on that first tee on Thursday.”

 

 


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Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior golf writer for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience covering golf, including 15 at ESPN. Bob is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods and Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry. He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Bob, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Florida.