WAKE FOR­EST PRODIGY BHA­TIA PLANS TO SKIP COL­LEGE,

The News & Observer - - Sports - BY LUKE DECOCK lde­[email protected]­sob­server.com Luke DeCock: 919- 829- 8947, @LukeDeCock

In a few weeks, Ak­shay Bha­tia will head out west to try to qual­ify for PGA Tour events in San Diego and Phoenix.

By this time next year, if all goes as planned, golf will be his full-time job.

The Wake For­est golf prodigy, who will turn 17 this month, con­firmed he has de­cided to skip col­lege and turn pro next year af­ter one last sum­mer on the am­a­teur cir­cuit. Col­lege golf coaches long ago as­sumed this would be the case, but Bha­tia said Fri­day there’s no turn­ing back now.

“We’ve thought about it for a while,” Bha­tia said. “I prob­a­bly started think­ing about turn­ing pro and not go­ing to col­lege when I was in eighth grade. At the time, you never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen but I just pro­gressed and pro­gressed un­til last year I dom­i­nated.

“In col­lege, I’d be play­ing against these same kids. I re­ally just started to think about it: Am I go­ing to get bet­ter do­ing this, play­ing against those ex­act same peo­ple, or step right up and play against the big leagues?”

Bha­tia, who is home-schooled, said he didn’t have any­thing against col­lege or col­lege golf in gen­eral – his older sis­ter Rhea played golf for Queens Univer­sity in Char­lotte – but he just felt ready to take the next step.

“Re­ally, it’s just a pro­gres­sion,” Bha­tia said. “It’s kind of like I’m check-mark­ing ev­ery­thing as I go along. I check-marked ju­nior golf last sum­mer. I’m not try­ing to be cocky, but I dom­i­nated ju­nior golf. Now, it’s step­ping up to to the am­a­teur level and play­ing against these great col­lege kids.”

Bha­tia, who fin­ished last sea­son as the world’s top-ranked ju­nior player, had an event­ful and suc­cess­ful sum­mer. He played for the vic­to­ri­ous United States at the Ju­nior Ry­der Cup in France, be­came the first player to win back-to-back Ju­nior PGA Cham­pi­onships – chip­ping in from the back of the 18th green to win – suf­fered a con­tro­ver­sial de­feat in the Round of 64 in the U.S. Am­a­teur at Peb­ble Beach af­ter his cad­die ac­cepted a cart ride from a tour­na­ment vol­un­teer, won two other na­tional ju­nior tour­na­ments and lost on the 36th and fi­nal hole of the cham­pi­onship match of the U.S. Ju­nior Am­a­teur.

Along the way, he has spent time inside the ropes with Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler and eaten lunch with Jack Nicklaus. Twice. He also filmed an episode of a YouTube show called “No Days Off” about pre­co­cious ath­letes, which is sched­uled to post Tues­day.

With his de­ci­sion to pur­sue a pro ca- reer – there’s no one-and-done rule on the PGA Tour, which is en­tirely a mer­it­based op­er­a­tion – Bha­tia is fol­low­ing in the Tri­an­gle foot­steps of Raleigh’s Ty Tryon, who was one of the first teens to skip col­lege and head di­rectly to the pro tour 18 years ago.

Tryon be­came the youngest player at the time to make a PGA Tour cut and earn his tour card but had only one top-10 fin­ish and strug­gled through a 10-year pro ca­reer be­fore giv­ing up the game for five years. He and Bha­tia tried to qual­ify for last spring’s Rex Hos­pi­tal Open on the Web.com Tour, end­ing up in an eight-man play­off. Tryon ad­vanced, Bha­tia did not. Oth­ers, like Kevin Na, have pur­sued a sim­i­lar path but most U.S. golfers play at least a year or two in col­lege.

Bha­tia, who prac­tices reg­u­larly with pros at TPC at Wake­field Plan­ta­tion, said he ex­pects to be ready to com­pete against them full-time next win­ter af­ter one last year of am­a­teur com­pe­ti­tion. Mak­ing the U.S. team for the Walker Cup is his top pri­or­ity, and he’ll play in the ma­jor am­a­teur events – in­clud­ing the U.S. Am­a­teur at Pine­hurst dur­ing Au­gust – while try­ing to qual­ify or get spon­sor’s ex­emp­tions for pro tour­na­ments along the way, then try to get his tour card in qual­i­fy­ing school next fall and start go­ing af­ter Webb Simp­son and Ches­son Hadley.

And if he wins at Pine­hurst No. 2 and earns an in­vi­ta­tion in the Masters in April, will he still turn pro next win­ter?

“Oh, no,” Bha­tia said. “Yeah, I’ll wait. I al­ready fac­tored that in if that hap­pens.”

PGA OF AMER­ICA

Ak­shay Bha­tia of Wake For­est shows off the Jack Nicklaus Tro­phy in Au­gust. He be­came the first player to win back-to-back Ju­nior PGA Cham­pi­onships.

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