PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Seventeen-year-old amateur sensation Akshay Bhatia made his first ever start on the PGA Tour this week at the Valspar Championship.
And the reigning Sage Valley Invitational and Junior PGA Champion did so with a veteran caddie who’s been looping on the pro levels for twice Bhatia’s age.
Eric Bajas has spent 34 years caddying for the likes of Bryce Molder and Moriya Jutanugarn, just to name a couple.
On Friday, when Bhatia teed off and hit the par-5 first fairway, fans in the grandstand right of the tee yelled “Let’s go, Akshay!” in emphatic approval.
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As player and caddie left the tee box, both smiled and laughed as they began their second round.
“Eric is one of the coolest, most upbeat people I’ve ever had on my bag and he knows his stuff,” the amateur smiled. “He’s been here before, he’s caddied in majors, and he knows what he’s doing, so I can trust him on every shot.
“Whatever he tells me to do, I’m 100 percent committed.”
Commitment is what you need at this level, as Bhatia said multiple times this week that he plays to win, not just be here.
Last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up ultimately missed the cut Friday after posting a 1-over 72, good for a total of 4 over for the week, which left him three shots shy of the cut.
Earlier today, Akshay Bhatia won the #JuniorPGA at @ValhallaGolf … by doing this! pic.twitter.com/MeITpo4ufH
— PGA of America (@PGA) August 4, 2018
Bhatia is a decorated amateur player to say the least, but what impressed Bajas most about his game this week?
“When he gets the tee ball going, he gets going in cruise control,” Bajas said. “His long irons get on cruise control. We got here Saturday and he was hitting it good, and Thursday (Round 1) the wind was a different direction and the feel of the tee ball gets affected.”
One thing the veteran noticed during Round 1 was Bhatia showing some nerves.
“On the fourth and fifth holes, and early on, I could tell he had the butterflies going, but he hung in there and he made some good par putts,” Bajas said. “He made a good par on 18, he birdied one and just unfortunate that he had a couple bogeys on eight and nine. Made some small mistakes, and on this course, it will cost you coming into these greens.”
But in the words of one Bhatia’s coaches Allen Terrell, “I don’t know many 17-year-olds that get to sing the song he sung this week (playing the PGA Tour).”
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In 34 years caddying, Bajas had never worked for a player making their PGA Tour debut.
So this week was just a little different for him.
When Bhatia finished his first round in almost complete darkness, they went straight to the range.
“We got work to do on his tee ball,” Bajas said Thursday night after the round. “He struggled with that all day. But he also missed (approach shots) in the right places. He scored well. (Copperhead) didn’t play easy this week, especially on Thursday afternoon.
“Overall, his first tournament, to hang in there is really good.”
Put yourself in the shoes of a 17-year-old. How would we all feel on the first tee (10th in this case) Thursday afternoon? Did Bhatia feel those butterflies?
“Yeah, I mean definitely,” he said.
So how did the young gun respond to such a challenge? How about by making birdie out of the gate?
“First hole, the birdie, that was kind of cool, but obviously I’m not used to the situation out here with crowds and just different conditions.”
Now that he’s been through one Tour event in the field, is it safe to say there’ll be a different comfort level when he gets to his next opportunity?
“Yeah, a hundred percent,” Bhatia said. “The first day is always going to be so hard because I’ve never been in a situation like this and when you come out here, especially as a teenager, it’s not easy to just overcome right away. So definitely the next time I feel like I’ll tee it up a little better and I’ll hit more fairways.”
Playing an event at the highest level doesn’t happen much for 17-year-olds, and knowing he was competing against the game’s best certainly was not lost on Bhatia.
“It’s awesome to play against these guys, and these guys do an unreal job playing this golf course,” Bhatia said. “So, it’s just getting more experience out here and I’m on the right track and this start was unbelievable and to have Dustin (Johnson) and Sergio (Garcia), Paul Casey, all these guys who played well here and had success on the PGA Tour, it’s nice and I’ve learned a lot.”
Valspar Championship Tournament Director Tracy West was proud to have added Bhatia to the field when he reached out asking for a sponsor’s exemption and she was happy to see the youngster working with Bajas.
“It’s great to see such a young player with a really experienced caddie this week,” West said. “It reminds me a bit of Justin Thomas when he added Jimmy Johnson to his bag a few years ago. There’s something about the youth and veteran combination that can really work.”
As Bhatia continues to pursue starts on the Tour, it will be interesting to see if this match continues to develop.