Akshay Bhatia builds lead at Junior Invitational at Sage Valley

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Akshay Bhatia showed a great deal of maturity in Friday’s second round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley.

Teeing off in the final group as one of two first-round co-leaders, Bhatia had heard about the trouble his competitors were having on the par-3 second hole. So when Bhatia splashed his tee ball in the water and walked away with a double bogey on the hole, he knew he wasn’t alone.

Turns out, he was right; the hole played nearly a stroke and a half over par at 4.3.

“Going into that hole was a little nerve-wracking,” Bhatia said. “I took my medicine. Everyone is going to have a bogey or double out here. It’s about minimizing mistakes and taking advantage of the holes you can.”

Just as he had done a day earlier when he received a two-stroke penalty for using his rangefinder on the fourth hole, Bhatia rebounded beautifully. He birdied the next three holes and then capped his front nine with consecutive birdies.

After shooting 1 over on the back, the Wake Forest, N.C., native signed for a 2-under 70 to move to 6 under and build a four-shot lead entering Saturday’s final round.

“Even if you start bad in a golf tournament, there’s so many holes to play,” Bhatia said. “I’m 2 over through two holes and I have 16 holes left to make birdies and pars, and even eagles.”

Bhatia, who has made just four score of worse than par through 36 holes, is one of just three players under par for the tournament, which is considered one of the toughest to win in junior golf. Ricky Castillo of Yorba Linda, Calif., also shot 70 in Round 2 and is second at 2 under, and Sweden’s Ludvig Aberg, the other first-round leader, is 1 under after a second-round 75.

The 16-year-old Bhatia knows anything can happen in Saturday’s final round. “This course is a bear,” he said. But he’s also confident in his ability to close out leads.

He’s done it many times before, including at last summer’s Junior PGA Championship. At that event, Bhatia shot 61 in the second round and led by six shots after 54 holes before closing in 67, finishing at a record 22 under and winning by three.

“I’ll have a good mindset going into tomorrow,” Bhatia said. “Have a goal. That’s what I did at Junior PGA. Everyone’s going to be chasing me, but I feel like I’m playing really well. As long as I have the mental mindset about winning then I think I got it.”

Bhatia also has been mentally strengthened to handled pressure-packed situations by his experiences at the Junior Presidents Cup and in PGA Tour Monday qualifiers. Since competing in last May’s qualifier for the Wells Fargo Championship, Bhatia has competed in seven Monday or pre-qualifiers for Tour events, including the Farmers Insurance Open, Phoenix Open and Valspar Championship. The left-hander plans to play another qualifier for the Wells Fargo next month.

It’s a unique playing schedule for a teenager, but one that has toughened Bhatia, who is still deciding whether or not to play college golf.

“It’s definitely a grind,” Bhatia said of the qualifiers. “You have to go out there and play a perfect round of golf. One mistake and you’re packing your bags and going home.”

Bhatia will try to treat Saturday’s final round at Sage Valley similarly. If he succeeds, he’ll have the honor of slipping on the coveted gold jacket.

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