LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Aug. 2) – One thing is for sure. Never count defending Boys Junior PGA Champion Akshay Bhatia out.
The 16-year old phenom from Wake Forest, North Carolina, came out of the abyss to shoot 7-under par 65 during Thursday’s 3rd Round at Valhalla Golf Club. In the process, he climbed 20 spots up the leaderboard to share the lead with William Moll, 17, of Houston.
Despite shooting a 76 to close the rain and fog-delayed second round in the morning, Bhatia (68-76-65 209) put himself in position to potentially become the first back-to-back and two-time champion in an event that dates back to 1976. Over the years, this major Championship for juniors has seen the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas vie for the Jack Nicklaus Trophy.
Meanwhile, Moll, 17, a Vanderbilt commit, fired a 2-under par 70 (68-71-70 209) that featured a sweet 40-foot birdie putt on No. 8 and three birdies on his last four holes (Nos. 15, 17 and 18).
“I will just try to make as little mistakes as possible tomorrow,” said Moll. “I am putting pretty good, which gives me a chance to play pretty good.”
Bhatia finished four holes in the morning to reach the halfway mark at even par. And just when you thought he didn’t have the magic this year, Bhatia kicked into another gear during the afternoon’s third round.
“I was really frustrated last night but I came in today and said, ‘Just get through those four holes that are left, and accept where I am at,” said Bhatia. “I knew there were 36 more holes to play. It’s crazy how golf can change in that span.”
Despite beating the next lowest score for the round by three strokes, Bhatia felt that he left a couple of putts on the course.
“I didn’t bring my ‘A’ game,” insisted Bhatia. “I brought my 'B' game.”
Hovering one shot back in third is Alexander Yang, 15, of Carlsbad, California. His 2-under-par 70 (69-71-70 210) put him in range, highlighted by a 40-foot eagle on Hole No. 7.
“I need to have fun tomorrow, and see what happens at the end of the round,” said Yang. “It will be difficult but a good test.”
Three players are tied for fourth just two shots off the pace at 5-under par for the Championship, including second round leader Luke Kluver (67-70-74 211) of Norfolk, Nebraska; Travis Vick (69-71-71 211) of Houston; and 14-year old Jackson Van Paris of Pinehurst, North Carolina.
The final round will begin Friday at 7:50 a.m. ET with double tees. The final group is scheduled to tee off on Hole No. 1 at 9:50 a.m. At the conclusion of play, the Jack Nicklaus Trophy will be presented to the 2018 Boys Junior PGA Champion.
After the ceremony, five boys will be named to join the 12-player, co-ed 2018 United States Junior Ryder Cup Team in Paris next month. Six girls and one boy have already secured spots including: 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur Champion Michael Thorbjornsen; 2018 Girls Junior PGA Champion Yeliani Noh; 2017 Girls PGA Champion Rose Zhang; 2016 Girls Junior PGA Champion Lucy Li; Rachel Heck; Erica Shepherd; and Alexa Pano.