Akshay Bhatia puts Masters debut within grasp amid Texas Open supremacy

Akshay Bhatia has waltzed around TPC San Antonio like he owns the place, playing superbly from tee to green to seize control of the Valero Texas Open.

Yet, he called Friday’s round, in which he carded a 2-under 70, “stressful.”

“I felt like I struggled a lot off the tee today. Golf swing didn’t feel great with any of the longer stuff, but iron play was still phenomenal, wedges were good, made some nice putts,” Bhatia said.

“I know I’m reading the greens really well, so I understand when I’m missing putts right now and why that’s happening. So [I have] a good understanding of where I need to improve the next couple of days.”

Bhatia, who shot a 9-under 63 on Thursday, sits at 11-under par through 36 holes and holds a commanding lead going into the weekend. Bhatia, the winner of last year’s Barracuda Championship—the alternate event played alongside The Open—now has a golden opportunity.

Valero Texas Open

Akshay Bhatia.
Photo by Raj Mehta/Getty Images

Should he go on to win, he would earn the last spot in the field at Augusta National, marking a full-circle moment for him. Ten years ago, Bhatia starred in the inaugural Drive, Chip, and Putt National Finals, an event created by Augusta National Golf Club that showcases some of the best junior golfers in the country.

The California native tied for sixth that week, but now he is halfway to competing in The Masters, an event he has long sought to play in.

But Bhatia revealed after his round Friday that he has struggled with anxiety in the past, and holding a 36-hole at a PGA Tour event—with a trip to Augusta on the line—would make anyone anxious.

“I know I can play well on this golf course. One shot at a time, it’s hard to do,” Bhatia said.

“I know a lot of people can say they can do that, but it’s really hard to do and think about one shot. So, all in all, it’s a tough golf course, stressful golf course. I said to everyone on my team, ‘It’s a tough track, you always feel like you’re on your toes, and you’ve got to hit some really quality shots,’ and hopefully, I can do that this weekend.”

Valero Texas Open, Akshay Bhatia

Akshay Bhatia on the 4th hole Friday.
Photo by Raj Mehta/Getty Images

Bhatia had a shaky start on the dogleg right, par-4 10th hole Friday. He pushed his tee shot well left into some thick grass, an eye-opening miss for the first-round leader. But he found his ball, hit a great shot on the green, and drained the birdie putt. Bam! Like that, Bhatia put a nervy shot behind him, and turned a poor start into a solid one.

“You’re going to battle adversity out here, and I knew that from the start,” Bhatia said.

“I hit it left off the tee on 10, and I said, there it is, there’s the adversity. I just had to battle today.”

Unlike Thursday, Bhatia had to fight hard on Friday. After his birdie at 10, Bhatia stumbled at the 11th and then made another bogey at the par-4 15th.

But he knew Friday would prove much more challenging than his opening round.

“It’s different because you have expectations like, ‘Oh, I just shot 9-under, so can I just do that again.’ It’s not possible,” Bhatia said.

“This golf course is so hard. The wind was a lot trickier today. Greens are getting firmer and firmer, even in the morning. I just have to pace myself and try to execute.”

Despite not driving the ball well at all, Bhatia managed to execute nicely on TPC San Antonio’s front side—his back nine on Friday. He made birdies at the 2nd, 7th, and 8th to shoot a 3-under 33 on his closing nine.

On a day when the wind howled up to 30 miles per hour, Bhatia is sitting pretty midway through the championship, despite his struggles off the tee.

Now, he gets to relax on Friday night with his fiancee, Presleigh, as the couple will celebrate their third anniversary with takeout. He is going to take things one day at a time, one step at a time like he always has, and if he continues to do so, a trip to Georgia might be in the works.

Jack Milko is a golf staff writer for SB Nation’s Playing Through. Be sure to check out @_PlayingThrough for more golf coverage. You can follow him on Twitter @jack_milko as well.

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