Akshay Bhatia's 'fairytale' ascent to the Masters eclipses all expectations

Akshay Bhatia reacts to a birdie putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the Texas Open.
Akshay Bhatia celebrates after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the Texas Open on Sunday. Bhatia defeated Denny McCarthy in a playoff to secure his spot in this year's Masters. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

On a day when everyone was focused on the eclipse, Akshay Bhatia was talking about the whirlwind.

Bhatia, 22, secured the last spot in the Masters by winning the Valero Texas Open on Sunday, edging Denny McCarthy on the first playoff hole despite aggravating a shoulder injury on the hole before.

A decade ago, Bhatia reached the national finals of the Drive, Chip & Putt competition, which is held every year at Augusta National. By qualifying Sunday, he became the first youth golfer to make it from the finals of that competition to the Masters.

Read more: The special ingredient of those brilliant white sand traps at the Masters

“It’s pretty crazy,” he conceded Monday. “It’s kind of a fairytale story.”

Bhatia was born in Northridge and spent his early childhood there because his family moved in 2011 to Raleigh, N.C. He was homeschooled and didn’t attend college, instead deciding to turn pro in 2019. He now lives in Wake Forest, N.C.

He had a wire-to-wire victory at Valero, holding off the scorching McCarthy, who had erased a six-shot deficit on the back nine to force a playoff, and earning $1.6 million in prize money.

Akshay Bhatia holds the winner's trophy after capturing the Texas Open on Sunday.
Akshay Bhatia holds the winner's trophy after capturing the Texas Open on Sunday. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

The shoulder injury happened on the 72nd hole when he punctuated a made birdie putt with a fist pump. Two years earlier, he suffered a shoulder dislocation on the pickleball court, and the injury had flared up a couple of times since then.

“It's nothing new to me,” he said. “It's a weird, weird experience because I had so much adrenaline so I had no pain kind of in that playoff. But it's definitely something we're going to have to work towards, and I have a lot of trust in my team that we can tee it up on Thursday.”

For him, the memories are still fresh from the Drive, Chip & Putt contest when he was 12.

Back then, he bumped into John Daly in an elevator. He and his fellow contestants got Masters cups, too, and they used those to set up a makeshift putting contest in the hotel hallways.

Read more: Must Reads: One house is still parked next to Augusta National despite club’s attempts to buy it

Most of that youth competition takes place in the practice area, although contestants do get a chance to putt on the 18th green. So Bhatia didn’t get to play the actual course until years later when a member invited him.

But he did get a chance to watch a Masters practice round back in 2014.

“We were sitting on Hole 4 in the grandstands,” he recalled. “It was just so surreal. I remember how bad I wanted to be out there and not just watch. Now being here … I’m hoping this can inspire a lot of kids that are having the opportunity to play.”

Sign up for the L.A. Times SoCal high school sports newsletter to get scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.