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Akshay Bhatia's Dustin Johnson Junior win a sentimental one
Akshay Bhatia (Photo courtesy Chris King/DJ Junior)
Akshay Bhatia (Photo courtesy Chris King/DJ Junior)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – When he plays golf, Akshay Bhatia looks much older than 17. His swing is smooth, his stride confident and his game nearly flawless.

When he lapped the field at the Dustin Johnson World Junior, getting a long overdue six-shot win after four tries, his teenage golf buddies hoisted him in the air and howled through the trophy presentation. Bhatia beamed. He is very much in the center of the junior-golf universe. He is, afterall, the nation’s top-ranked junior.

Bhatia’s talent puts him in conversations across every level of the game. He scored four major junior victories in 2018 and ended the year with an invitation to a practice session for Walker Cup hopefuls (the only junior to be invited). He started 2019 with a win at the Jones Cup, the amateur golf event of the winter. Later this month, he will make his PGA Tour debut at the Valspar Championship.

Those are all important milestones, but the Dustin Johnson win was for family.

TPC Myrtle Beach, the host course for the elite 54-hole junior event, is also home to the Dustin Johnson Golf School. Allen Terrell, one of Bhatia’s instructors, is the director of coaching there. Terrell has helped put Myrtle Beach’s golf community on the map in ways that stretch beyond the sheer amount (and quality) of golf courses.

Bhatia and Terrell began working together in 2016 after Bhatia’s father picked up a business card for the former Coastal Carolina coach. Akshay likes Terrell’s “no-B.S.” approach to teaching while Terrell appreciates his student’s tireless drive to get better.

Bhatia normally sends Terrell a video of his swing the day after a major win – wanting feedback so he can keep improving. Maybe this time he doesn’t have to. Terrell was there to see Bhatia close out a final-round 69 with an easy par at the water-lined 18th.

“We need two guys to keep up with Shay,” Terrell joked, referencing the tag-team effort between himself and Southern California-based coach George Gankas.

Bhatia’s golf knowledge is deep, and he made few mistakes around TPC Myrtle Beach. He had two bogeys each round, and nothing higher than that.

“I’ve been in the final group the last three years and to finally close it out? It’s great,” said Bhatia, who led the field with 16 birdies.

His 10-under total matches TPC Myrtle Beach’s 54-hole tournament record, set in 2007 by East Tennessee State University’s Rhys Davies during the Coastal Carolina-hosted General Hackler Championship. Bhatia shattered the previous Dustin Johnson Junior scoring record of 5-under 211, set by Trent Phillips in 2017.

Bhatia was clear that he wanted a win this week in part for Terrell. The teenager might not still be an amateur when this event rolls around in another year. He has expressed a desire to turn professional after his 18th birthday in January 2020.

As he creeps toward that goal, every experience translates to improvement. Terrell notes how far Bhatia’s short game has come. Bhatia’s swing is fundamentally sound enough to grow with his slender frame. Already, he can create 118 mph of clubhead speed, and a ball speed in the high 160s.

“He’s just a puppy,” Terrell said.

Terrell’s words of wisdom will be in Bhatia’s ear as he tees it up at Innisbrook Resort for the Valspar Championship later this month: Stay focused, keep your head down and don’t wear yourself out on the range.

For Bhatia, the Tour is the next level, but for many juniors, the Dustin Johnson Junior represents that next level of competition. Runner-up Luke Clanton had heard enough of his peers talk about the event that he decided he had to play this year. He has played his way into the final pairing on the final day in other events, but this time was different.

“This is a big one, especially with Akshay in the final group,” Clanton said thoughtfully after the final round. “I didn’t get nervous though, that’s the weird part about it.”

Clanton had one of few under-par rounds on Saturday (a 1-under 71) and threw out two birdies in the first three holes Sunday to keep Bhatia in sight. His final-round 73 left him 4 under for the week. That was one better than defending champion Michael Brennan as well as Tyler Wilkes, whose final-round 68 was Sunday’s best score.

Clanton, in the class of 2022, has made a college choice but isn’t ready to reveal it. That, he said excitedly, will come soon, and with plenty of social-media hype. Clanton’s deft touch around TPC Myrtle Beach shows he’ll be a good get for a top program.

The Miami Lakes, Fla., native has only ever had lessons from his dad David, a jack-of-all-trades who served in the Army in the early 1980s.

“I came into this week wanting a really good finish because my game has been so good lately, I just haven’t been able to put the scores on the board,” said Clanton, who is excited about an upcoming start at the Sage Valley Junior Invitational, another top event. “…For me to come out with second place in this great field is amazing. Definitely a good confidence booster.”

ABOUT THE Dustin Johnson World Junior

Started in 2016 by the Dustin Johnson Foundation, the Dustin Johnson World Junior Championship is a 54- hole invitational event for Boys and Girls ages 13- 18. Those who do not meet the invitation criteria will have an opportunity to earn a spot via an 18-hole qualifier prior to the event.

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