- Another Indian American, 24-year-old Sahith Theegala of California, missed the U.S. Open cut after shooting 76-73 (+7).
Over the past weekend, Akshay Bhatia made history, once again, by becoming the youngest Indian-origin male golfer to play in a major championship. At the prestigious U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California, Bhatia, 19, of Wake Forest, North Carolina, played rounds of 73-73-73-75 (10-over 294) over the demanding course to finish tied-57th.
As per the US Open website, Bhatia entered the tournament field after shooting 65-73(-4) at a 36-hole regional qualifying tournament on June 7 in South Carolina. “He then made a dramatic birdie on the 36th hole at Torrey to just make the cut for the weekend at +4 for his first two rounds,” per India Golf Weekly.
Bhatia’s feat comes on the heels of New Jersey teen, Megha Ganne, 17, who made history as the first amateur golfer to share the lead in a women’s major at the 76th US Women’s Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California. The 71st-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking also won over a galaxy of admirers.
On Instagram, Bhatia analyzed his performance at his first major. “My first U.S Open did not disappoint,” he wrote. “It was such an amazing event to be a part of! I appreciate all of the support this week and I really enjoyed playing in front of the fans that came out. Definitely an experience to remember. Let’s keep it rolling.”
Last month, Bhatia got his first victory on the GProTour by winning the 2021 Biggs Classic in North Carolina, bringing home $20,000. The Biggs Classic pays the largest purse on the GProTour, which features golfers who have played in either the Korn Ferry Tour, formally the Web.com Tour, or the PGA Tour.
Bhatia, also a lefty, has developed a good relationship with fellow Callaway brand ambassador and six-time major winner, Phil Mickelson as they share the same management company. India Golf Weekly reported that at the start of this year, Bhatia hitched a ride on Phil’s $40 million Lear Jet on the way to the Saudi International.
Bhatia turned pro in 2019 at age 17 after being ranked among the top 5 amateurs in the world. But it was a rocky start. He made his PGA Tour debut at the Valspar Championship on a sponsorship exemption, but he missed the cut. That season (2019-2020), Bhatia missed making the cut in six tournaments. Right before turning professional, Bhatia won the 2019 Jones Cup Invitational.
However, he had better luck at the mini-tours. Bhatia made his mini-tour debut in April 2019 on the Web.com Tour, at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Championship, where he made the cut and finished T-42. The Web.com Tour.
Bhatia was born on Jan. 31, 2002, in Northridge, California, to Sonny and Renu Bhatia. His interest in golf started with his sister, Rhea, who is about four years older than him. Bhatia was a child when he first saw his sister play. “He wanted to play really badly at first but was too young,” his father Sonny Bhatia told the Raleigh News and Observer. He advised his son to “watch his sister,” he told the paper. “Your time will come,” he told his son at the time. Rhea Bhatia, the 2015 4A Regional champion as a high schooler, played for two years on the women’s team at the Queens University of Charlotte. The family moved from California to North Carolina when Bhatia was 9.
Bhatia’s appearance can be deceptive. The lanky, tall teen, with his trendy glasses (he cannot put the contacts in, Bhatia told Walter magazine), has a powerful swing. Golf Digest says Bhatia’s “swing speed teetering on 125 mph” is about 5 mph more than the “the high 120s” which “is among the fastest on the PGA Tour.” Bhatia stands six feet tall and 130 lbs.
And it is not just his swing that makes Bhatia a golf phenomenon. His entry into the professional league is rare as well. Bhatia turned down college for a chance to live his dream, a discussion he first had with his father in eighth grade. Bhatia, who has been homeschooled since eighth grade, graduated in 2018. Golf Digest says Bhatia’s decision to turn professional at age 17 was “a controversial choice, as virtually every great American player spent at least some time on a college campus.”
Jordan Spieth played a year-plus at Texas, Justin Thomas did two at Alabama, Matt Wolff did two at Oklahoma State, Collin Morikawa stayed a full four at Cal-Berkeley. “And despite a decorated junior career that saw him emerge as the consensus top junior in the country, many felt Bhatia would be well-served by the increasingly competitive college game,” the Digest says.
Another Indian American player in the field – Sahith Theegala, 24, of California – missed the U.S. Open cut after shooting 76-73 (+7). Before entering the pro circuit, Theegala was a star player during his five years at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He was ranked among the Top 20 in the American Junior Golf Association or AJGA ranking. He competed in his first U.S. Open as an amateur in 2017 and was a three-time All-American at Pepperdine.
In his first season at Pepperdine in 2015-16, Theegala was named West Coast Conference (WCC) Freshman of the Year and a First Team All-WCC selection after arguably the best freshman season in school history, posting a scoring average of 71.06. In 2016-17, he had five top-10 finishes, including his first collegiate victory, and was again an All-WCC First Team selection, also earning All-American third-team honors.
In January 2019, Theegala had wrist surgery and missed 10 months. The Golf Channel reported then that “the long layoff, however, matured Theegala, giving him better perspective, making him a better teammate.” Despite not being able to play, he insisted on traveling with the team to regionals and nationals that year. He returned to playing in June 2019 with a tournament at Sunnehanna Country Club in Pennsylvania.
Earlier last year, a few days after Kobe Bryant, Theegala’s childhood hero, died in a plane crash on Jan. 26, he played the Southwestern Invitational at North Ranch Country Club in West Village, California. Bryant’s helicopter reportedly crashed less than a mile from Theegala’s apartment. Golf Channel reported that during that tournament, Theegala wore Bryant’s jersey for the final two putts, “followed that performance with a truly Mamba-like run – top-6s in three of the spring’s toughest events, the Amer Ari, Prestige and Southern Highlands.” He later told the Golf Channel that “there were so many stars that seemed to align perfectly for this year to be our year.”
With his collegiate career at an end, Theegala turned pro last spring and made his debut at the Outlaw Tour’s Lone Tree Classic in Chandler, Arizona, where he finished third and collected a $1,850 paycheck, according to a profile on Theegala at Sportscasting. At his PGA Tour debut at the Travelers Championship, he missed the cut. Luck wasn’t on his side, as a week later, at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he missed the cut again, followed by another cut at the 3M Open.
But the bad luck streak didn’t last long as he made “consecutive weekends at the Barracuda Championship, where he tied for 41st, and the 2020-21 season-opening Safeway Open, where he tied for 14th,” as per his profile on Sportscasting. Theegala made one final start in 2020, missing the cut at the Sanderson Farms Championship.
Following a lengthy layoff, Theegala made his Korn Ferry Tour debut in March 2021, finishing tied for 19th. He’s made five more starts on the KFT since then and has made the cut in each, his best finish a tie for ninth at the MGM Resorts Championship at Paiute. He returned to the PGA Tour at the Charles Schwab Challenge but missed the cut. “However, he bounced back nicely with a very respectable T-32 finish at the Memorial, after which he traveled about an hour south to Springfield Country Club, where he won a 3-for-1 playoff to get into the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines,” says the Sportcasting profile.
Theegala suffers from scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. “Any back-related abnormality obviously isn’t a good thing for any golfer, but Theegala has found a way to make it work,” the website says. “And while he’s still looking for that first professional victory, he’s got things working just fine one year into his pro career.”