JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Akshay Bhatia makes his professional debut in the Sanderson Farms Championship at age 17, and the prospect of winning didn’t seem as overwhelming when he came across a player only three years older.
It was Joaquin Niemann, the 20-year-old from Chile, who won the PGA Tour’s season opener last week at The Greenbrier.
“It was really cool because Joaquin didn’t go to college, and obviously had a great amateur and junior career,” Bhatia said Wednesday. “To see him finally break through and win, it was probably the coolest thing. I saw him in the locker room this week, gave him a hug. It was just probably the coolest thing. Like I said, it’s inspiring to see that. I’m ready to get it going and see what I can do.”
There are a few other differences.
Niemann won the Latin American Amateur in 2017, played in the Masters and then earned his PGA Tour card through sponsor exemptions. Even though he’s 20, this is his third season playing the PGA Tour.
Bhatia, who never had any intention of going to college, played in the Valspar Championship in March and missed the cut. He got into a Korn Ferry Tour event a month later and tied for 42nd. His experience isn’t quite the same.
Even so, youth is all the rage recently.
Along with Niemann winning last week, Matthew Wolff won a month after leaving Oklahoma State at the 3M Open in Minnesota. Then, Cal graduate Collin Morikawa won the Barracuda Championship. Sungjae Im, the 21-year-old from South Korea, was voted PGA Tour rookie of the year.
The defending champion at the Sanderson Farms, which starts Thursday, is Cameron Champ, who was 23 last year when he overpowered the course.
“I do definitely gain some confidence knowing that we’re all good enough to compete out here,” Bhatia said. “It’s just getting over the hump of just the atmosphere is a little different. Obviously, we’re all good golfers and we can put the ball in the hole really quick. I mean, these guys just have a little more experience. It’s exciting seeing all these guys do so well so quick.”
Bhatia will be facing a much stronger field than in recent years at the Country Club of Jackson when the Sanderson Farms begins Thursday. The tournament is no longer held the same week as the World Golf Championships event in Shanghai. That means it gets a full allotment of FedEx Cup points, and the winner gets an invitation to the Masters. The prize money has increased to $6.6 million.
That still didn’t attract any of the top players. Many are at Wentworth outside London this week for the European Tour’s flagship event, a list that includes Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau. Others, like Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, will not start their seasons until the next few weeks.
But it’s clear that players aren’t just sitting around for the rest of the year.
“The fall schedule has actually taken a more and more important kind of role over the last three or four years,” said Brandt Snedeker, the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 41. “It used to be when they first started this fall schedule, you could take the whole fall off and start in January and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Now you start in January and you are so far behind the 8-ball because there’s so many tournaments — so many big tournaments in the fall — that you’re kind of forced into playing a lot more.”
Niemann is still trying to come down from the biggest day of his career. He won by six shots, earned a return trip to the Masters and reached No. 50 in the world. He is the youngest international player to win on the PGA Tour since Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper of England in 1923.
It’s still sinking in. He still hasn’t replied to all the phone calls and text messages, many of them from his native Chile. Suddenly, he is on the radar as a possible captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup. Niemann’s goal now is to act like it never happened.
“I just think that I just need to keep playing, just feel like I didn’t win so I just keep pushing and try to get better every time,” he said. “Just happy to get that win, and keep practicing and enjoying everything.”