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In summer of success, Wake Forest’s Bhatia falls just short of biggest win yet

Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest hits from the fairway during the 56th North Carolina Amateur Championship on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at the Governor's Club in Chapel Hill on June 19, 2016.
Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest hits from the fairway during the 56th North Carolina Amateur Championship on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at the Governor's Club in Chapel Hill on June 19, 2016. newsobserver.com

After narrowly missing out on qualifying for the Rex Hospital Open this summer, losing out to pros twice his age on his home course, Akshay Bhatia made an impression on the Triangle’s previous junior golf phenom. Bhatia, the 16-year-old prodigy from Wake Forest, was battling in a playoff against, among others, Raleigh native Ty Tryon, who 17 years earlier had turned pro as a 16-year-old.

Bhatia told Tryon he was from Wake Forest. Tryon assumed he meant the university, until he was told otherwise.

“What? How old is he?” Tryon asked. “He’s a pretty impressive player for 16.”

Arguably, Bhatia is the Triangle’s most impressive 16-year-old since Tryon was that age. And he nearly removed all doubt Sunday.

Already the top-ranked junior golfer in the country, Bhatia made it to the 36-hole championship match at the U.S. Junior Amateur before falling by a single hole at New Jersey’s famous Baltusrol Golf Club to another 16-year-old, Michael Thorbjornsen of Massachusetts.

“It was such a great week,” Bhatia said. “The USGA did an amazing job and playing Baltusrol for a whole week isn’t too bad either. ... It was satisfying knowing that I can grind my way through.

“Every match is so hard and match play’s a different game. Some kid can not be ranked and have the round of his life every day. I beat some great players. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my time this week, but I’ve still got so much to look forward to.”

Bhatia led for the first 22 holes Saturday and didn’t fall behind until the 32nd hole, but could never close the gap over the final four holes. It was a disappointing conclusion to an amazing week, one in which Bhatia played all nine rounds over six days with a putter he had to wrangle back into shape after he accidentally stepped on it while practicing early in the week.

In this summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school – Bhatia takes online classes – he’s breaking Jordan Spieth’s junior records and doing things no one has done as a teenager since Tiger Woods, setting course and tournament records all over the place. He has only entered five AJGA events this summer; he’s won two and finished second in another. His worst finish is a tie for 13th.

He won one important junior tournament earlier this summer despite a penalty for accidentally using his laser range-finder, out of habit. He was so far ahead of the field, he won by a stroke anyway.

The skinny left-hander uses his long arms to generate tremendous leverage, but his short game gives him a chance to win big tournaments like this one. Easily spotted by his chunky glasses, he has also let a little scruff creep onto his cheeks to make him look a little less like a kid, at least until he opens his mouth to reveal his braces.

A Junior Am title would have been a natural culmination of that summer, but it wasn’t to be. Bhatia let things slip away on the 32nd hole, a drivable par-4, when Thorbjornsen drove the green and Bhatia missed left. He had a chance to even the match on the 35th hole but his putt lipped out; a birdie would have sent it to extra holes on the 36th, but his second shot came up short of the green. He nearly made the putt from the fringe anyway.

Bhatia’s run to the final match continued a good run for the Triangle in amateur golf, which has been riding high on the senior-level accomplishments of Paul Simson for years. Raleigh’s Doc Redman won the U.S. Amateur last year, and the pipeline that sent Webb Simpson and Chesson Hadley to the PGA Tour continues to generate future pros.

As disappointing as Saturday’s final few holes might have been, it’s easy to see better days ahead for Bhatia. He’s already headed to Pebble Beach, having already qualified for next month’s U.S. Amateur, but a win Saturday would have gotten him a spot in next summer’s U.S. Open there as well.

“I’m going to qualify for the U.S. Open the hard way,” Bhatia said. “That’s how you have to look at it.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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