Akshay Bhatia keeps cool in the heat, grinds way through US Amateur qualifying round

Akshay Bhatia didn’t know if it would be enough to get him to match play in the U.S. Amateur. He did believe it was a putt he had to make to have any chance.

And Bhatia made it -- both the putt and match play. The left-hander from Wake Forest rolled in a six-foot par putt Tuesday on the final hole of his second qualifying round at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club.

With a 2-over 72 on the No. 4 Course, following up a 72 on Monday on No. 2, Bhatia stood at 4-over-par 144 for tournament. The fifth-ranked men’s amateur player in the world also faced a long afternoon wait to see if it would place him in the low 64 scorers who will advance to match play on Wednesday. It did.

“It’s kind of hard but I hung in there and did a good job finishing up,” Bhatia said in an interview after the round. “Hopefully, it’s good enough or I can get in a playoff to get it done and get to match play.”

A double-bogey 6 at the second hole on No. 4 — his 12th hole of the round after starting on the ninth — was his biggest mistake on a day when the slender 17-year-old hit 16 greens in regulation.

Bhatia bunkered his approach shot but could not find the ball in the sand. He said he took a penalty drop for an unplayable lie and wound up with double bogey.

But Bhatia maintained his composure on a hot, sticky day and gamely strung together pars after that, aware that another slip might end any match-play hopes. At the par-4 eighth, his final hole, he was over the green with his approach shot but got up-and-down for his par.

Play was suspended at 4:57 p.m. because of dangerous weather, adding to Bhatia’s wait, although his position had improved hour by hour as the field, for the most part, struggled on both courses. Play later resumed before the qualifying round was suspended because of darkness at 8 p.m.

Bhatia, tied for 78th after his round, was tied for 46th when play was called and apparently safe for match play. When the second round was completed Wednesday morning, Bhatia was in match play and scheduled to play R.J. Manke in the first round at 12:40 p.m.

Brandon Wu was the qualifying medalist at 3-under 137 after a 72 Tuesday on No. 2.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Bhatia said Tuesday. “I did what I needed to do and hit a really good putt on the last hole. That’s gratifying to me because knowing I can do something under pressure is nice.”

There was little pressure for Bhatia in junior golf. A long hitter with a sharp short game, he won just about everything, set scoring records and was the AJGA national player of the year. He did fall just short in the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur, losing in the final to Michael Thorbjornsen, but twice won the Junior PGA Championship and starred on the winning U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team last year in Paris.

Bhatia also is taking an unconventional path to professional golf. No college golf for him. He will turn pro soon after competing on the U.S. Walker Cup team in September and hopes his first tournament as a pro, the Safeway Classic, will be the first of seven PGA Tour starts that he can use to propel him to the tour.

If not, there’s open qualifying for PGA Tour events. There’s the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying tournament — the so-called Q-School.

Bhatia’s father, Sonny, said 2019 has been about gearing Akshay up for the grind and challenge of professional golf.

“The strategy for this year was about preparation,” he said. “It was about winning for him but about preparation. Mind-set, controlling the game. Based on preparation, it has been great.

“When you go to the pros everything counts. How he handles himself as a professional counts. We worked on all that stuff beside hitting the little white ball.”

Bhatia attempted to Monday qualify for the recent Wyndham Championship in Greenboro. He had eight birdies in his round at Bermuda Run — no one in the qualifier had more — but also seven bogeys, missing the cutoff by three shots.

“You’ve got to learn how to get beaten up,” he said. “It’s going to happen in the professional world.”

Sonny Bhatia said he was proud of how his son handled the qualifier, saying, “What a great test that was for him. After every bogey, he made a birdie. So he would bounce back, bounce back.”

Is Akshay Bhatia ready for pro golf at 17? Raleigh native Ty Tryon gave that a try years ago and flamed out.

“For him, it’s self-belief,” Sonny Bhatia said. “If any parent has a child who believes they can do whatever — I want to join the Army, I want to become a doctor, whatever — it’s our responsibility to get him there and that’s how we’ve done it. We support him as a parent. It’s like, ‘As long as you give it 100 percent and you believe in yourself, we’ll give it a shot.’ ”

But first things first. Akshay Bhatia noted he first played Pinehurst when he was 10, in the U.S. Kids World Golf Championship, and finds it fitting his last amateur tournament seven years later will be on the same golf grounds.

“That’s amazing,” he said. “It’s written, almost.”