Wake Forest golf prodigy Bhatia will skip college, head straight to pro career next year

In a few weeks, Akshay Bhatia will head out west to try to Monday qualify for PGA Tour events in San Diego and Phoenix.

By this time next year, if all goes as planned it will be his full-time job.

The Wake Forest golf prodigy, who turns 17 this month, confirmed he has decided to skip college and turn pro next year after one last summer on the amateur circuit. College golf coaches long ago assumed this would be the case, but Bhatia said Friday there’s no turning back now.

“We’ve thought about it for a while,” Bhatia said. “I probably started thinking about turning pro and not going to college when I was in eighth grade. At the time, you never know what’s going to happen but I just progressed and progressed until last year I dominated.

“In college, I’d be playing against these same kids. I really just started to think about it: Am I going to get better doing this, playing against those exact same people, or step right up and play against the big leagues?”

Bhatia, who is home-schooled, said he didn’t have anything against college or college golf in general – his older sister Rhea played golf for Queens University in Charlotte – but just felt ready to take the next step in his golf career.

“Really, it’s just a progression,” Bhatia said. “It’s kind of like I’m check-marking everything as I go along. I check-marked junior golf last summer. I’‘m not trying to be cocky, but I dominated junior golf. Now, it’s stepping up to to the amateur level and playing against these great college kids.”

Bhatia, who finished last season as the world’s top-ranked junior player, had an eventful and successful summer. He played for the victorious United States at the Junior Ryder Cup in France, became the first player to win back-to-back Junior PGA Championships – chipping in from the back of the 18th green to win – suffered a controversial defeat in the Round of 64 in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach after his caddie accepted a cart ride from a tournament volunteer, won two other national junior tournaments and lost on the 36th and final hole of the championship match of the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Along the way, he has spent time inside the ropes with Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler and eaten lunch with Jack Nicklaus. Twice. He also filmed an episode of a YouTube show called “No Days Off” about precocious athletes, which is scheduled to post Tuesday.

With his decision to pursue a pro career – there’s no one-and-done rule on the PGA Tour, which is entirely a merit-based operation – Bhatia is following in the Triangle footsteps of Ty Tryon, the Raleigh teen who was one of the first teens to skip college and head directly to the pro tour 18 years ago.

Tryon became the youngest-ever player at the time to make a PGA Tour cut and earn his tour card but had only one top-10 finish and struggled through a 10-year pro career before giving up the game for five years. He and Bhatia both tried to qualify for last spring’s Rex Hospital Open, ending up in an eight-man playoff. Tryon advanced, Bhatia did not. Others, like Kevin Na, have pursued a similar path but most American golfers play at least a year or two in college.

Bhatia, who practices regularly with older pros at TPC at Wakefield Plantation, said he expects to be ready to compete against them full-time next winter after one last year of amateur competition. Making the U.S. team for the Walker Cup is his top priority, and he’ll play in the major amateur events – including the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst in August – while trying to qualify or get sponsor’s exemptions for pro tournaments along the way, then try to get his tour card in qualifying school next fall and start going after Webb Simpson and Chesson Hadley.

And if he wins at Pinehurst No. 2 and earns an invitation in The Masters in April, will he still turn pro next winter?

“Oh, no,” Bhatia said. “Yeah, I’ll wait. I already factored that in if that happens.”

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.