Akshay Bhatia’s coach in North Carolina, Chase Duncan, had his pupil running sprints before this PGA TOUR season began.
Not as punishment, but as an opportunity for Bhatia to get better.
Why spend time running instead of grinding on the putting green or driving range? To work on his breathing. He’d run down a fairway, get his heart-rate up, and the duo would see how long it took to slow down again to a normal average.
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“I’m trying to understand how I can control myself and make myself feel as comfortable as possible,” said Bhatia.
After his most recent result at the Safeway Open, it’s fair to say he’s starting to feel more comfortable on TOUR, too.
Bhatia turned professional in 2019 after becoming the youngest player to ever represent the United States in the Walker Cup. He made his pro debut on TOUR at the Sanderson Farms Championship last season. The debut came after he had reached No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.
But despite his success on the junior and amateur circuit, it hadn’t quite translated to the pro game until the Safeway Open. Bhatia finished T9 there and earned a spot in the field at this week’s Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. He was the youngest player to finish in the top 10 of a stroke-play event on the PGA TOUR since Justin Rose finished fourth at the 1998 Open Championship.
“It’s always nice anytime you get a chance to play the PGA TOUR,” Bhatia said. “It’s a great way to enjoy things because this is the life I want to have and I have to get a taste of it. Earning my spot here was a different feeling for me and I’m just excited to get it going.”
It has certainly been a meaty stretch of learning for Bhatia.
After putting a bow on an impressive junior golf career – he was on the winning Junior Presidents Cup team in 2017, the winning Junior Ryder Cup team in 2018 and the winning Walker Cup team last year – he hadn’t made a cut on the PGA TOUR until the Safeway Open.
He was 0-for-7 on TOUR to that point, although he did finish T42 at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour in April 2019 after Monday qualifying.
“I’ve learned a lot more from failing than succeeding,” Bhatia said. “Golf’s such an up and down game and you can really let it take the best of you, but I’ve learned a lot.
“Obviously it would have been great to get off to a good start, turning pro early, but the way it’s worked out I’ve learned a lot about myself with the failures I’ve had and understanding a lot of things. I’ve taken a lot more from not playing my greatest golf and understanding what I can get better at.”
Bhatia said he’s had his eyes opened to how many good players are on TOUR and how many could win on any given week. Patience is key, he said.
During the COVID-19 break, he worked hard to add more shots to his repertoire and better understand how he feels under pressure – hence the sprints and the breathing exercises.
He said he still feels like he’s got momentum this week in Puntacana, despite the fact that his top-10 at the Safeway Open was two weeks ago.
“Anytime you get to play competition, that’s the greatest thing – to play against the best,” he said.
Bhatia spent last week recovering from the rigors of contending on the PGA TOUR. He watched the last few holes of the U.S. Open because runner-up Matthew Wolff is a fellow George Gankas student and Bhatia played with DeChambeau at a Monday qualifier a few years ago.
“It’s kind of crazy to see where he is now. At the time I thought he was hitting it so far,” Bhatia said of DeChambeau. “He was carrying it and was taking these lines where I thought, ‘holy crap.’ It must be just amazing what he’s doing now.”
Still, Bhatia is taking things one step at a time as he tries to reach the same level on TOUR as DeChambeau and Wolff and the laundry list of other young stars in the game.
He said this week at Corales is one of “the coolest places” he’s been to play golf in his life, and, with a laugh, he said he’d of course rather be in the Dominican than at home or grinding at a Monday qualifier.
“The biggest thing for me is just to try to go out and birdie every hole. That’s all I’m aiming to do – just try to play golf. There’s nothing really special to it. Adding pressure to it doesn’t make you play better,” said Bhatia. “I’m just going to have a good time, enjoy the views, and it’s going to be a fun week.”