PINEHURST, N.C. — Akshay Bhatia felt nervous Monday afternoon on the first tee at Pinehurst No. 2 as he prepared to pursue the U.S. Amateur championship.
The 17-year-old phenom from nearby Wake Forest, NC told caddie Chris Wilson he was “shaking like a leaf.”
Wilson offered a simple reminder to soothe the fourth-ranked amateur in the world.
“How many guys have they picked for the Walker Cup? They’ve picked three and you were one of them,” Wilson said. “You’re playing with house money. Just go have fun. Those other guys have something to prove. You’re in a good spot. Let’s go have fun and hit as many greens as you can and stay as patient as you can.”
After an opening 72 on Donald Ross’ diabolical masterpiece, Wilson assessed Bhatia’s round with words easy to believe for anyone who watched the 330-yard drives, towering iron shots and deft pitches off tight, sandy lies.
“He played great,” Wilson said.
Wilson, 34, understands how a player feels under the pressure of competitive golf at the highest level. The former Northwestern star turned pro in 2007 and has made 126 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, winning the 2012 Price Cutter Charity Championship. He played in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and had his PGA Tour card in 2013, making 31 career starts.
Even though Wilson is accustomed to swinging the clubs, not carrying them – joking after the round that Bhatia’s Team USA stand bag was heavier than it appeared in the Carolina heat traipsing the rolling Sandhills – he’s the ideal caddie as Bhatia closes a chapter of his career in amateur golf’s ultimate championship.
Bhatia and Wilson have played 80-100 rounds together over the last three or four years at TPC Wakefield in Raleigh, site of the Korn Ferry Tour’s Rex Hospital Open. Bhatia has battled Wilson and other Tour players past and present such as Carl Pettersson, Chesson Hadley, David Mathis and Garth Mulroy, using those rounds to sharpen his abundant skills and measure his ability against seasoned competitors.
“When I first met him, it was obvious that he had some talent,” Wilson said. “Then you started to hear about him, then he has a great summer two summers ago. I think he would admit playing with five or six Tour players and in the excellent junior program at Wakefield has been a big part of his development.”
Bhatia, 17, is playing his final individual amateur tournament this week in Pinehurst. In May the runner-up in the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur signed with Lagardère Sports, which also represents Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm and Davis Love III. He’s turning pro in September after the Walker Cup at Royal Liverpool, will make four or five starts on the PGA Tour in the fall and also compete for status through the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying school.
Wilson has also entered Korn Ferry Tour Q School. He endured a quiet year on the course, playing one KFT event and Monday qualifying for the Barbasol Championship on the PGA Tour, missing the cut.
Wilson still wants to play for a living and honing his own game remains the primary goal. But he’s relishing the opportunity to caddie for Bhatia, a lanky lefty whose driver ball speed surpasses 170 mph and can smash an 8-iron 185 yards. Wilson is an invaluable assistant this week at No. 2, which demands rigorous discipline because golfer and caddie must plan each shot with the next one in mind.
“Anytime you can be involved on championship golf courses that are the real deal – and this is the real deal – it’s a treat,” Wilson said. “You have to think your way around and your patience level has to be through the roof.”
In their rounds at home, Bhatia is an aggressive putter but No. 2 requires a conservative approach. Holes tucked in corners, located precariously atop knobs mean competitors must accept a two-putt par from 20 feet, a difficult concept for a talented golfer to master at any age.
“In our practice rounds we worked on maximum break, minimum speed,” Wilson said. “That ties in with the patience, you can’t go running putts four feet by or you’ll go gray at 18 out here. He did a great job staying patient.”
Wilson put his caddie chops on display between the 10th green and 11th tee Monday. After blasting two shots into the greenside bunker on No. 10, a 613-yard par-5, Bhatia three-putted from inside four feet for bogey to drop to 1 over. Walking off the green after tapping-in, Bhatia dropped his head and slumped his shoulders. Wilson stopped him to chat as they waited for playing companions to putt out.
“We have (26) holes left,” Wilson told him. “That’s a lot of golf. The most important thing is we get a good target on this next one and get it in the fairway. I said I’m not going to hand you the driver until you tell me you’re ready, tell me you’re over that.”
Bhatia crushed another drive, splitting the fairway on Ben Hogan’s favorite par 4. Hogan wouldn’t recognize the way golf’s rising generation can manhandle this masterpiece yet the strategy needed to tame it will never change. Having a veteran hand like Wilson on the bag gives Bhatia a unique perspective to solve the riddle in his farewell to the amateur game.