US teen phenom Bhatia makes PGA debut at Valspar

US teen phenom Bhatia makes PGA debut at Valspar
AFP

Miami (AFP) – US teen golf prodigy Akshay Bhatia makes his PGA Tour debut Thursday at the Valspar Championship with plans to turn professional later this year after a groundbreaking amateur career.

The lanky 17-year-old lefthander from North Carolina starts in the last group off the 10th tee at the Innisbrook Copperhead course in Palm Harbor, Florida, thanks to a sponsor’s exemption.

Bhatia, who intends to skip college for his shot at the pro ranks, has already practiced with Spanish star Jon Rahm and chatted with top-ranked Dustin Johnson this week.

“It’s cool because I’m slowly building relationships out here and for the future,” Bhatia said in a posting on the PGA website. “It’s going to be great just to lean on them a little bit.”

A mutual friend set up his practice opportunity with Rahm, who made his jump to the pros at the ripe old age of 21 in 2016.

“I just asked him some stuff about what his experiences was when he was playing in his first PGA Tour event and just got to know him a little bit,” Bhatia said. “Hopefully in the future, I’ll be talking to him more.”

Bhatia, who wears thick-rimmed glasses, took a silver medal at last year’s Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, helped the 2018 US team win the Junior Ryder Cup over Europe and won the 2017 and 2018 Boys Junior PGA Championship.

In 2017, he won by three strokes, shooting a course-record 61 and breaking the old 72-hole tournament record by five strokes. Last year he holed a 40-foot chip for eagle to win by a shot.

“I have so much self-belief in what I do,” said Bhatia. “I’m stepping up and performing at the level I need to perform. I feel like I have a really good plan and I’m ready to do it.”

Bhatia, ranked eighth on the world amateur list, won the Jones Cup last month in a playoff and captured the Dustin Johnson World Junior Championship earlier this month in South Carolina, where he’s booked into the RSM Classic later this year.

Bhatia, who learned the game watching his older sister Rhea, hopes to become the first US high school player in September’s Walker Cup, the amateur version of the Ryder Cup, then turn professional.

“I think I have a pretty good game plan as far as turning pro and my scheduling going forward,” he said.

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