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After ‘crazy journey,’ Akshay Bhatia earns Tour status with runner-up in Puerto Rico

Last week, Akshay Bhatia stripped and got dirty. This week, he got status on the PGA Tour.

The 21-year-old former teenage phenom earned special temporary Tour membership with a solo runner-up at the Puerto Rico Open. The Californian birdied his final four holes en route to a final-round 7-under 65. He finished at 19 under, two strokes behind champion Nico Echavarria.

“I can’t believe I’m crying, oh, my God,” Bhatia said afterward.

“It means a lot. I mean, worked really hard. It’s been a crazy journey, for sure. Last year was really disappointing, I got hurt and didn’t get my card through the Korn Ferry Tour. I mean, it’s crazy. Like, I have so many people to thank, obviously ... It’s a crazy day. Didn’t even know I shot 7 under. I mean, chipped in three times on the same hole (the par-3 16th) though this week.

“This is a great story and I want to write a book about my life and my journey. It’s definitely going to be a really good chapter, for sure.”

Full-field scores from the Puerto Rico Open

Here’s how the book would lead into this chapter. Bhatia had a distinguished junior career and was the first high-schooler to play on the U.S. Walker Cup team. Colleges were lining up for his services, however, he decided to bypass a colligate career and turn pro at age 17 in 2019.

But Bhatia was in for a rude awaking. He missed his first six Tour cuts. Then, the following season, he made four cuts in 11 starts. However, he tied for ninth at the 2020 Safeway Open, which he parlayed into enough non-member points to punch his ticket to Korn Ferry Tour Finals.

In August 2021, he placed T-41 at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, which gave him an exemption into the Final Stage of KFT Q-School. Bhatia tied for 63rd and didn’t earn guaranteed starts, but his priority ranking got him into the ’22 KFT season-opening Bahamas Great Exuma Classic.

Bhatia took advantage of that opportunity, winning the tournament just 12 days before his 20th birthday. He became the third-youngest winner in KFT history, behind Sungjae Im and Jason Day.

Colombian rookie Nico Echavarria seized control with two straight birdies on the back nine and closed with a 4-under 68.

Bhatia, though, went on to miss 13 cuts in 24 starts and failed to earn his Tour card. So he set out to make ’23 his last year on the KFT.

“My goal this whole year was to finish No. 1 on the Korn Ferry Tour money list, play that way, get my card that way,” he said. “But, you know, just a different path. I’ve been in this position before and it really makes me happy that I’ve handled it so much better and learned from all the experiences I’ve had.”

Bhatia has never followed a traditional path. And though he’s endured years of hardships going against the grain, he’s now where he’s always wanted to be — on the PGA Tour.

In two weeks, he’ll embark on the next chapter of his career where he made his Tour debut on a sponsor’s exemption as a 17-year-old, the Valspar Championship.

“To start my career on the PGA Tour where it all started, it’s a story you just can’t write,” he said, “it’s pretty cool.”

Maybe the next chapters in his book are filled with the top-level success he dreamed of having as a teenage phenom — and maybe a few more shirtless, dirty moments, too.