Wake Forest golf phenom ready to turn pro at 17

Akshay Bhatia plans to skip college and play on tour next January

Akshay Bhatia, a 16-year-old golfer from Wake Forest, plans to turn pro next January, forgoing a college career. (Jess N. Pierson / Whistle)

“Golf’s not easy.”

Anyone that’s tried to play the sport at any level knows that Akshay Bhatia speaks the truth. That’s not stopping the 16-year-old Wake Forest golfing phenom from embarking on a bold plan.

Despite interest from colleges around the country, including Oklahoma State and USC, Bhatia has announced that he plans to skip college and go pro.

“I guess I know what I want to do,” Bhatia said. “I know I have some great people around me. I kind of know the right way. I’ve gotten better every single year. This past year was really unbelievable and put me in position mentally to say that I’m ready to do it.”

While leagues like the NBA and NFL have rules preventing high school players from making the leap to the pros, the PGA has no barriers to Bhatia.

The current timeline has Bhatia turning pro in January of 2020. “I’ll go to Q School (the tournament where aspiring pros compete to earn their “tour card”) at the end of this year,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get some starts sometime soon.”

That plan is subject to change, but not in the way most people would expect. Bhatia isn’t worried about a slump or injury slowing his march to the pros.

“U.S. Amateurs,” Bhatia said. “If I win that or get into the finals, I’ll probably hold off on turning pro in January. Possibly, if I win U.S. Juniors, getting the exemption to the U.S. Open, I might hold off as well. Other than that, nothing else.”

Clearly, Bhatia isn’t lacking for confidence — with good reason. He finished the season as the top-ranked junior player and won the AJGA Rolex Boys Player of the Year. His season included a victory at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, then knocked down an impressive 45-yard putt to win the Junior PGA.

Bhatia is also training like a pro. A recent Whistle docuseries on YouTube titled “No Days Off” followed him for a typical day’s practice and workout regimen.

“I don’t think I’ll need to change anything,” he said of his current training plan. “Just getting stronger, maybe get just a little more specific on what I’m going to practice and stuff. I’ve talked to my coaches about it, for sure. You try to outwork everyone else. In any sport or anything you’re trying to do, whether it’s working for a company or working at a sport, you try to outwork everyone else. I’m definitely on the right track.”

There are some cautionary tales for Bhatia in recent history. Most notably, perhaps, is Raleigh’s Ty Tryon, who turned pro in 2001 at age 16 but struggled with health problems and inconsistency, going seven years without making a PGA cut at one point.

Bhatia isn’t worried about repeating the past, however.

“No concerns,” he said. “Everyone had their own way to do it. They (past players) probably made a hiccup in the road or something. But I have everything I need to be one of the best players in the world. It’s really different from when guys were growing up and doing it back in 2000, 2005. It’s a very different era, for sure.”

Plus, Bhatia pointed out, there are also plenty of success stories.

Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy, Spain’s Sergio Garcia, South Africa’s Trevor Immelman and Justin Rose, and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson are among the players to turn pro young without playing in college.

“A lot of international players have done it,” Bhatia said. “It’s definitely not anything new. It’s just new to American golfers.”

Bhatia said that the professional golfers he’s spoken to seem to approve of his plan.

“People have their opinions, but at the end of the day, people support my decision,” he said. “I hang out with a couple of Web.com Tour (golf’s equivalent of a minor league to the PGA Tour) guys. They’ve helped me a lot to mentally grow. They’ve taught me a lot of secrets that will help a lot when first playing on the tour.”

Still, there’s a difference between playing with Web.com guys and matching up against the world’s best.

“The biggest adjustment will be just getting used to playing with guys like Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Tiger,” he said. “That’s going to be the hardest thing. Other than that, it’s just going out there trying to win. Everyone has the same mindset, just at a different level.”

Bhatia realizes that a year or two at college might help him to have the proverbial fallback plan, should the golf tour not work out for whatever reason. But he’s not about to hedge his bet.

“I really don’t have anything,” he said of his own fallback options. “In my opinion, if you’re already thinking about having a backup plan, you’re planning yourself for failure. I’m trying to be the best in the world. That’s the mindset I have. I’m not thinking about a backup plan at all.”