Akshay Bhatia: The confidence of a young Tiger and the game to back it up

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There’s only one thing that the number one junior golfer in the world, Akshay Bhatia, admits he can’t do.

He doesn’t know how to put contact lenses in. 

The 17-year-old, who currently resides in Wake Forest, North Carolina has unwavering confidence in just about everything else.

His resume of tournament wins doesn’t hurt: he’s won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the Jones Cup, and back-to-back Junior PGA Championships, where he shot a 61, his career low in a competitive round. In addition, the teen recently became the youngest player ever to be named to the United States Walker Cup team. 

Upon first glance, there is an uncanny resemblance between Bhatia’s swing and that of a golfer whose name may sound familiar.

Tiger Woods.

Both stand around six-feet tall and use their long limbs to generate speed. Bhatia is fully aware of the similarities. 

“I mean, he was skinny, he was tall, he was lanky. Some things I do better than him, and some things he’s done better than me, but it’s definitely pretty similar,” said Bhatia. “Tiger obviously hit it far when he was young and the clubs were different and whatever but, just the speed I’m able to create, the way I use the ground, [swing coach George Gankas] is pretty impressed with that.”

The ease with which Bhatia measures his swing against Woods’ may be shocking, but it also demonstrates a level of self-confidence that is vital for success on the PGA TOUR and reminiscent of a young Tiger’s attitude. 

The day before Woods’ own professional debut in 1996, he told Curtis Strange in an interview, “I’ve always figured that, why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to try and win? There’s really no point in even going.” Strange laughed off the bold comment.  “You’ll learn,” he scoffed. 

Bhatia’s ambition has helped him rise to the No. 1 ranking on Junior Golf Scoreboard and No. 4 in the World Amatuer Golf Rankings. However, he will fall off both of those elite lists very soon. 

The teen plans to forgo college and make his professional debut at the Safeway Open in September. According to Bhatia, a solid foundation of self-belief will be the real key to a successful professional career. 

Alongside Bhatia throughout his journey to junior golf domination has been Gankas, who many would describe as the most popular, yet unconventional swing coach in the game right now. 

The combination of Gankas’ eccentric personality and his ability to add upwards of 10 miles per hour to many of his students’ swing speeds has attracted 168,000 followers to his Instagram.

“I’ve just surrounded myself with a lot of great people, and George especially,” said Bhatia. “He’s always helped me so much on what I should be feeling when I’m not playing well and if I’m feeling great then you know, there’s something I always want to work on because I get bored sometimes when I’m playing so well.”

Apparently, Bhatia’s non-stop practice grind, which includes three to four hours of putting daily, is not always enough to keep him on his toes. 

“I’m just like George, I need to do something, I need to work on something,” Bhatia joked. 

Gankas is the coach of PGA Tour break-out star Matthew Wolff and the mind behind a new golf slang, in which “scoobie snacks” and “scwamdowed” are words of encouragement. 

“Matthew Wolff, one of my friends, and he goes to George as well, he’s said the same thing: as long as you believe you can be out here, and you can win and you can prove it to yourself, the sky’s the limit,” said Bhatia. “A lot of us juniors and college players are taking over the PGA Tour right now. For me it just shows if they’re capable of doing it, there’s no reason I can’t.”

Bhatia trusts that he can mirror what the current PGA Tour rookie class has accomplished this season.

“I know I can shoot very low. I’m capable of holding off players when I need to do it,” said Bhatia.

If Bhatia continues to go through his young career with the self-belief and ambition that he has now, there will undoubtedly be critics. However, as players like Woods, Brooks Koepka, and Wolff have demonstrated, valid self-confidence makes all the difference.

The professional golf world does not know what’s coming for them this September when Bhatia rolls up, thick-rimmed glasses and all.

Rory McIlroy overcomes six-stroke deficit, claims FedExCup title and $18 million

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Rory McIlroy claimed his third FedExCup title by capturing the Tour Championship on Sunday. McIlroy overcame a six-stroke final-round deficit to Scottie Scheffler to claim the $18-million bonus.

Scheffler began the final stanza with a heavy advantage, thanks to a fantastic finish to the third round Sunday morning.

After play was suspended Saturday evening because of an inclement weather threat, the field returned to East Lake at 9:45 a.m. to wrap Round 3. Scheffler and Xander Schauffele, in the final group and separated by one shot, were in the 13th fairway when play resumed. Scheffler played his final six holes in 4 under to reach 23 under par. Schauffele played them in 1 over to drop to 17 under.

McIlroy wrapped up a third-round 63 to also reach 17 under and grab a spot in the final-round final twosome.

Both he and Scheffler bogeyed the first hole, but while Scheffler continued to slip, McIlroy steadily rose. The Northern Irishman made four birdies over the remainder of his opening nine to turn in 3-under 32. Scheffler, meanwhile, posted a 37. The difference was one.

Following a McIlroy birdie at the 12th, they were knotted.

Im was also in contention through much of the final round. He got within a shot of the lead before a double bogey at the par-4 14th.  Im made a couple of late birdies to again climb within one of the lead, but he was unable to birdie the par-5 18th, settling for a 66 and a 20-under finish.

Im, ultimately, was chasing McIlroy. After McIlroy bogeyed the 14th to drop one back of Scheffler, he rolled in a 31-foot birdie at the par-3 15th to draw even at 21 under. McIlroy then scrambled for par at the 16th, while Scheffler made bogey.

With two holes to play, McIlroy led by one.

Scheffler had a chance to regain a share of the lead at the par-4 17th, but after sticking his approach shot to 12 feet, he badly shoved the birdie effort and made par. With one hole to play – and an $11.5 million difference between first and second place – McIlroy maintained the slight edge.

Both players hit the fairway at the 18th, Scheffler driving it 334 yards and McIlroy 342. Hitting first, Scheffler found a bunker short and right of the green. McIlroy followed by hooking his second from 228 yards off the left grandstands.

Again playing first, Scheffler blasted his bunker shot over the green. McIlroy was able to get relief from the grandstand and chipped to 20 feet. After Scheffler was unable to chip in for birdie, McIlroy just needed to two-putt for par to secure victory. He did that easily. Scheffler settled for par and a T-2 alongside Im.

Cameron Smith storms past Rory McIlroy to win 150th Open at St. Andrews

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Cameron Smith stole the claret jug from Rory McIlroy’s grasp, carding six birdies on the final nine Sunday at St. Andrews and capping a 64-64 weekend to win the 150th Open Championship by a shot. Here’s everything you need to know:

Leaderboard: Cameron Smith (-20), Cameron Young (-19), Rory McIlroy (-18), Viktor Hovland (-14), Tommy Fleetwood (-14)

How it happened: Prior to Sunday’s final round, Tiger Woods sent NBC on-course reporter John Wood a text putting himself in the shoes of the two co-leaders, McIlroy and Hovland, who were four shots clear of the nearest chasers, which included Smith. It read: “If I shot 19 under par, which would tie the lowest score in relation to par in all four majors, I would win. How do I go about doing that? No bunkers, no three-putts, take care of the drivable par 4s and take care of the par 5s. Maybe sneak in one or two more [birdies]. Lo and behold, a score around 68 without doing anything special.”

McIlroy tried to follow that game plan. He didn’t find a bunker, nor did he three-putt. And for good measure, he didn’t miss a green in regulation. Unfortunately, for McIlroy, he also couldn’t buy a birdie, managing only two, closing in 2-under 70 and getting passed by the young Aussie, who did something special.

While Hovland fell off the pace, McIlroy appeared to be doing just enough to win despite just two birdies in his first 10 holes. But by that time, Smith had begun a streak of five straight birdies – from 5, 16, 11, 18 and 5 feet  at Nos. 10-14 – to overtake McIlroy and move to 19 under. Smith added a birdie at the last with a closing 8-under 64, but he actually won this tournament a hole earlier, at the Road Hole, where he piped a drive down the fairway only to hook one left and well short of the green. With the infamous Road Hole Bunker between he and the hole, Smith opted to putt around the trap. He then sunk the clutch 10-footer for par to remain a shot clear of McIlroy, who needed to chip in for eagle at the last but ran it well past and ended up third, two back and shot behind Young, who eagled No. 18 to earn the runner-up finish.

What it means: Coming into this 150th Open, McIlroy spoke of the significance of winning a claret jug at St. Andrews’ prized Old Course. He called the achievement the “holy grail” of professional golf, so though McIlroy already possessed one Open title, in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, he wanted this one badly. After all, it had been eight years since McIlroy had won a major of any kind. Instead, it was Smith, with just one top-20 in four previous Open starts, knocking off his first major. In winning, the 28-year-old Smith became the first Australian to win The Open in 29 years, since Greg Norman beat Nick Faldo in 1993 at Royal St. George’s.

Round of the day: While McIlroy struck 36 putts on Sunday, Smith had just 29, and that performance with the flatstick helped him card the low final round by a shot over several players, including Young.

Biggest disappointment: In what was supposed to be essentially a match-play battle between he and McIlroy, Hovland went birdie-less for 11 holes and never factored down the stretch.