Akshay Bhatia, Sahith Theegala make Indian-American golfers a big focus - Hindustan Times
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Akshay Bhatia, Sahith Theegala make Indian-American golfers a big focus

ByJoy Chakravarty
Apr 09, 2024 08:59 PM IST

Their success on the PGA Tour is causing a buzz at the Masters as well as in the country of their parents’ birth.

A rising star was as much the talk at Augusta National Golf Club as the spectacular solar eclipse that was witnessed over the state of Georgia on Monday.

Akshay Bhatia of the United States acknowledges the crowd.(Getty Images via AFP)
Akshay Bhatia of the United States acknowledges the crowd.(Getty Images via AFP)

Akshay Bhatia, the 22-year-old Indian-American who won the Valero Texas Open last week to punch the last ticket to this year’s Masters, was one of the most discussed names in the US media on the eve of the first major championship of the year.

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That seems about right. His effort in the playoff hole against a red-hot Denny McCarthy, with his left shoulder out of its socket, was heroic. But so was what he did in the 72 holes of regulation play. Built so slender that he can hide behind a flagstick, Bhatia has become a fan favourite because he absolutely smashes the ball and plays a hyper-aggressive brand of golf.

In the last few years, Indian CEOs have been all the rage in the American corporate world. Bhatia, who improved to world No.34, and No.15 Sahith Theegala are now making it a trend in golf. The women’s game is also not untouched by the phenomenon with players like Megha Ganne and Gurleen Kaur touted as future superstars.

Masters has been a dream in the making over the past 10 years for Bhatia, a participant in the 12-14 age-group category at the inaugural Dive Chip and Putt finals at Augusta National in 2014. Like most kids growing up, he made numerous putts to ‘win the Masters’ in his friendly rounds, but it all becomes very real this week.

Bhatia was trying to play cool as he met the media, but things have clearly changed. For starters, despite finishing late in San Antonio on Sunday, he received a lift in a private jet from one of his sponsors and was in Augusta by midnight. He refrained from any practice on Monday. Instead, he finished the several media commitments listed for him and kept his physio busy with some serious work on his shoulder.

San Antonio was the third time Bhatia’s shoulder has popped out in recent times, and this time he was just celebrating the birdie putt on the 72nd hole in regulation with a fist pump. Don’t expect him to do the bhangra on the 18th green if he wins.

There are other anomalies from his Indian roots. He skipped college completely and turned professional at 17, determined to get all his higher education on the fairways and greens. Bhatia is one of the very few American pros who did not pursue the conventional route.

Theegala, on the other hand, is a proper product of the US college golf system. The Pepperdine standout is truly on his way to becoming a cult figure in the sport. It helps that he can pull out imaginative and miraculous shots from near-impossible situations. He complements it with his expressive, ember-filled eyes and exaggerated body reactions on the golf course.

And both are aware of the impact they are making for Indians in the US, as well as in the country of their parents’ birth.

“I’ll take a little bit of credit, but not a lot of it. Hopefully, Indian-American sport becomes the new norm. Honestly, in Bay Hill and Players, there were so many people following me yelling stuff like, ‘Telegu boys stick together’, and you just feel so proud. It’s really cool,” said Theegala.

“A few days ago, a couple of Indian kids came up in Houston and said they’ve started playing golf because of me. It’s pretty crazy to hear that. Hopefully, I can keep being an inspiration.

“And I get so many nice messages and reactions on my social media from India. I’m actually going to India in November for my cousin’s marriage. I’m so excited for that already.”

Both players do have a good shot at the Green Jacket this week. Conventional wisdom says first-timers tend to struggle with the various nuances of Augusta National. Well, Theegala was stunning in his debut last year as he notched a top-10 that included a Sunday 67 of rare brilliance. With four top-10s already this year and playing a much more relaxed schedule, he has the hunger and is feeling fresh for the challenge.

Bhatia will be aiming to become the first rookie since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters on debut. He is coming in hot, which is always good for confidence, but is also backed up by the fact that the Augusta National layout seems to favour left-handers. Since 2001, lefties have won six of 23 titles.

If they do manage to get the famous Masters roar going this week, rest assured the reverberations will also be felt thousands of miles away.

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