LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Since 1976, there has never been a back-to-back winner in the Boys Junior PGA Championship. Well, go ahead and add yet another “never before” to Akshay Bhatia’s name.
Bhatia, 16, of Wake Forest, North Carolina, holed out a slow-moving, sidewinding 40-foot chip for eagle from off the 18th green, at Valhalla Golf Club—to miraculously rally from one-down over runner-up Tommy Stephenson, of Carlsbad, California and clinch the 43rd Boys Junior PGA Championship on the 72nd hole.
In the process, he became the first-ever back-to-back Champion, as well as the first two-time victor. All of this in an event that has hosted the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and David Toms, to name a few members of the Who’s Who list.
Following a tee shot straight down the fairway on No. 18, Bhatia striped a 3-iron from 228-yards out to the back edge of the fringe. He angled his chip away from the hole and rode the ridge dramatically down to glory. Before the ball sank, Bhatia raised his club in celebration followed by a Tigeresque fist-pump, as the gallery roared in absolute amazement.
“To make the chip was unreal,” said Bhatia.
A bogey on Hole No. 17 left him one shot behind Stephenson, who was in the clubhouse at 10-under par and a one-shot lead.
“It was one of the ‘clutchiest’ moments of my career,” said Bhatia.
In addition, Bhatia clinched an automatic spot on the 2018 United States Junior Ryder Cup Team, which will travel to Disneyland Paris in September.
Bhatia recorded bookend chip-ins on Hole Nos. 1 (birdie) and 18 (eagle) to accentuate his round of 4-under par 68 (68-76-65-68 277), and finish at 11-under par for the Championship.
He is certainly no stranger to great theatre. Last year, he scorched the Boys Junior PGA Championship record book with the lowest round ever (61); lowest 54-hole score ever (199); and eclipsed Pat Perez’s all-time Championship record for lowest 72-hole total score—a record that stood for 24 years—by five strokes (22-under par 266).
While Bhatia’s score was more in check at Valhalla, his chip-in will live in the Championship’s lore. “It’s really cool because, there’s lot of history here and a lot of great PGA moments.”
Stephenson, 17, had himself quite a round as well, coming in with a 6-under par 66 for the day (70-71-71-66 277). His round featured consecutive chip-in birdies on Nos. 7 and 8, which fired up a see-saw leaderboard match between him and Bhatia. Stephenson carded seven birdies versus one bogey to finish at 10-under par for the Championship, including a birdie on No. 18 that nearly brought him the title.
“The ball just went in the hole,” said Stephenson, a Fresno State commit. “I putted amazingly well, and the ball just kept going in. I stayed in control.”
Kentuckian Canon Claycomb, 16, of Bowling Green, jumped up seven spots on the leaderboard with a 5-under par 67—and an 8-under par Championship total (70-74-69-67 280)—to tie for third with Alexander Yang (69-71-70-70 280), 15, of Carlsbad, California.
In a tie for fifth at 7-under par 281 were Travis Vick, 18, of Houston (69-71-71-70 281); and Luke Kluver, 18, of Norfolk, Nebraska (67-70-74-70 281).
William Moll, who was tied with Bhatia entering the final round as co-leaders finished in a three-way tie for ninth.
An Ace and An Albatross:
Cole Ponich, 18, of Farmington, Utah, recorded his fourth career hole-in-one, with an ace on Hole No. 14. Pierson Hunt, 16, of Hartland, Wisconsin, carded a rare double-eagle on the par-5 7th hole.
United States Junior Ryder Cup Team:
Following the Championship, the following players were named to the 2018 United States Junior Ryder Cup Team by PGA Past President and Team Captain Allen Wronowski: Akshay Bhatia, Canon Claycomb, Michael Thorbjornsen, Ricky Castillo, William Moll and Cole Ponich. They will join Yealimi Noh, Rose Zhang, Lucy Li, Rachel Heck, Erica Shepherd and Alexa Pano on the co-ed team that will compete against Europe at Disneyland Paris in September.