Other Sports

Wake Forest golfer, 15, never lets age hold him back

Akshay Bhatia is like a lot of 15-year-olds. He’s growing taller, growing into his body. He has braces. He fiddles with his phone.

But Bhatia isn’t a typical 15-year-old on the golf course. A left-hander, he combines a solid, functional golf swing and good short game with a degree of focus and grit that can help separate him from his peers.

“He’s just got a drive,” said Sonny Bhatia, Akshay’s father. “He’s got that drive to post a score, always trying to be in the hunt, always in the fight. He always tries to get into the last group in the final round.

“He’ll fight right to the end. He’s a fighter.”

Bhatia entered a U.S. Open local qualifier this week at Lonnie Poole Golf Course aware that more than 80 golfers would be competing for five spots in a U.S. Open sectional. The field included several players who have turned professional such as Bo Andrews of Raleigh, a former Georgia Tech golfer who will play in the upcoming Rex Hospital Open, a Web.com Tour event.

The kid from Wake Forest finished third. With a 2-under 70, Bhatia will be in one of the U.S. Open sectionals on June 5.

“I bogeyed my opening hole, which wasn’t too fun to start,” he said. “But I fought back and I played consistent, so I’m proud of myself.”

Bhatia noted it was a lot better than when he first signed up for a U.S. Open local qualifier.

“I shot like 90,” he said.

Then again, he was 10 at the time. A scratch golfer, but 10 years old.

Bhatia said he never lets his age be a factor. That was the case in October, when he and Grayson Wotnosky of Wake Forest entered a sectional qualifier for the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship that begins next week at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club.

Bhatia and Wotnosky, also 15, posted a best-ball score of 65 at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, finishing a shot behind medalists Richard Taylor and Cam Warren of Charlotte. The final two team spots were determined in a playoff, with Bhatia and Wotnosky advancing along with Anthony Baker of Walkerstown and Bryan Colquitt of High Point.

There were 2,412 teams or “sides” entered in the U.S. Golf Association qualifying, with 128 sides getting to Pinehurst. The combined age of Bhatia and Wotnosky was 48 years younger than the oldest team of Jay Sessa (61) of Garden City, N.Y., and Don Enga (57) of Queens Village, N.Y.

“Who cares about age? You’ve just got to get a ball in a hole,” Wotnosky said, smiling. “You can be better than anyone else regardless of age. Age is just a number.

“This will definitely be different but I think we’ll have a good time. We just want to go out and have fun there and see what happens.”

The 128 sides will play 18 holes of stroke play next Saturday and Sunday on the Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 8 courses, with the low 32 sides qualifying for match play. The champions will be determined Wednesday, May 31, when the semifinals and championship finals are held.

The U.S. Amateur Four-Ball is a recent addition to the USGA’s annual schedule, adding a new twist. The inaugural tournament was played in 2015 at Olympic Club in San Francisco – Todd White of Spartanburg. S.C., and Nathan Smith of Pittsburgh winning – and last year at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Benjamin Baxter and Andrew Buchanan, members of the Southern Methodist golf team, won the 2016 title but will not defend their championship at Pinehurst. Smith and White are in the field.

Wotnosky said he and Bhatia both are home-schooled and that the two often practice and play together at TPC Wakefield Plantation.

Bhatia, whose family moved to North Carolina from California in 2011, has won American Junior Golf Association and other junior tournaments. He said he once had a 63 on famed Pinehurst No. 2, playing at 6,300 yards, in the U.S. Kids World Golf Championship and has aced the par-3 17th hole on No 2.

Sonny Bhatia, who is retired, said his son first got the urge to try golf watching his older sister, Rhea, a member of the golf team at Queens University in Charlotte.

“He wanted to play really badly at first but was too young,” Sonny Bhatia said. “I said, ‘Watch your sister and your time will come.’ They’ve both been playing golf ever since. Both love golf.”

Akshay Bhatia was invited in 2014 to compete in the first Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals competition on the Sunday preceding Masters week in Augusta, Ga. Eighty-eight juniors, ages 7 to 15, advanced through local and sectional qualifying to be a part of the inaugural event, which was televised by the Golf Channel.

It was a first visit to Augusta National Golf Club for the Bhatias, and a thrill for everyone when past Masters champions Bubba Watson and Fred Couples unexpectedly dropped by to watch and the defending champ, Adam Scott, crashed the awards ceremony.

“That was so humbling and such a great experience,” Sonny Bhatia said.

Akshay has a busy summer planned and recently has been working with golf instructor Chase Duncan, a former N.C. State golfer, at Lonnie Poole Golf Course. Bhatia said the two have adjusted his backswing, getting the club on plane, in a better position.

Wotnosky, who had a 74 in the U.S. Open qualifier, said Bhatia, was a “really solid player in every aspect of the game.” Bhatia, in turn, said Wotnosky is a good ball-striker and putter.

And together, as a team?

“We always feed off each other, always carry each other,” Bhatia said. “If I make a mistake, he’s always there, like 3 feet (from the pin). It’s just feeding off each other and knowing our games.”

As for their strategy in Pinehurst, Bhatia smiled and said: “Take it low.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship

When: May 27-31

Where: Pinehurst Resort and Country Club

Admission: Free.


May 27-28: First and second rounds of stroke play at Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 8 courses. Low 32 teams advance to match play.

May 29: First round of match play.

May 30: Second and quarterfinal rounds of match play.

May 31: Semifinal and championship rounds of match play.