Jonas Hillyard basking in first year — and first major — as caddie for best friend Akshay Bhatia
As Jonas Hillyard caddied at the 121st U.S. Open Championship this past week, he couldn’t help but think back to where he was a year ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic had canceled Hillyard’s summer internship, leaving the 21-year-old with nothing to do for a summer job. But then, the phone rang. It was his childhood best friend, Akshay Bhatia, asking if he would be interested in being his caddie for the summer.
Hillyard happily agreed and they headed to a mini-tour event in Knoxville, Tennessee that weekend. A couple of tournaments later, Bhatia got his first professional win at a mini-tour event in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Shortly after, Bhatia asked Hillyard to be his caddie full time.
Nearly 10 months later, Bhatia and Hillyard qualified for the U.S. Open at Long Cove Club in Hilton Head. Bhatia shot 4 under through two rounds to earn the final qualifying spot, and four days later, they were on a plane ride across the country to head to San Diego, California, and Torrey Pines.
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“I was so excited when we qualified that I was in disbelief,” said Hillyard. “Akshay and I were both ready. We didn’t want to get too excited, so we just kept our heads down and got ready to play as best we could. As excited as I was to be caddying in a major, I was just ready to get out there.”
Hillyard knew how much playing in the U.S. Open meant for Bhatia, who at age 19 was the youngest competitor in the field and playing in his first major championship. Although he had only been a caddie for one year, he was determined to be as prepared as possible.
“Caddying in the U.S. Open is a lot different from just any PGA tournament. There’s a lot more prep work that goes into it. I was grinding the entire week, making sure I had all the course notes down. I wanted to understand everything I could about the course for Akshay. I didn’t get much sleep,” said Hillyard.
The focus and preparation paid off for the team as Bhatia shot 4 over in the first two rounds, and thanks to an incredible birdie on the 18th hole on Friday, they made the cut by one stroke. He finished 10 over, tied for 57th. For the former top-ranked junior golfer, it was a weekend to remember.
“When we got there on Thursday we were just trying to go as low as possible and put ourselves in a good spot for the weekend,” said Hillyard. “It’s exciting that he made the cut at his first major at 19 years old, but we were obviously setting the bar high.”
Hillyard and Bhatia have been friends for over 13 years. They grew up playing golf together at Heritage Golf Club in Wake Forest, North Carolina every day after school.
When Hillyard was asked to be his caddie for the summer, it was a dream come true.
“Being 22 years old and getting to travel around the world every week with your best friend is pretty awesome,” Hillyard said. “I love hanging out with Akshay on the road. We go out, get dinner, and then do our thing at the golf course, and like best friends do, we goof around in our free time.”
The chemistry certainly paid off on the course as Bhatia began playing his best golf since turning pro out of high school at the age of 17. With Hillyard on his bag, he has won three mini-tour events and made the cut at a handful of PGA Tour events.
Bhatia’s first PGA Tour event with Hillyard as his caddie was at the Wyndham Championship last summer, where they missed the cut. However, they had more success less than a month later in the Safeway Open where Bhatia finished tied for ninth to begin the 2020-21 season. They have also made the cut in the Mayakoba Golf Classic and AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Hillyard is excited to see where his “first real caddie gig” with Bhatia takes him next.