US Open experience at Pinehurst leaves Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest with ‘bitter taste’

Akshay Bhatia was smiling but it was almost like it hurt to smile.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said Sunday.

Even at 22 and playing his first U.S. Open, Bhatia expected better of himself. The left-handed pro from Wake Forest likes the No. 2 course at Pinehurst, which he said has its own aura about it. He believed he could play well on it, even in major championship conditions that can be so beguiling.

When Bhatia drained a 70-foot birdie putt on the front nine Saturday, he was under par for the tournament and just a few shots out of the U.S. Open lead. But No. 2 ultimately was the winner, Bhatia finishing with a 3-over 73 in the third round and then a 71 on Sunday.

It was Bhatia’s first top-20 finish in a major. It also was one he did not like.

“It’s obviously my best finish in a major this year, but there’s a bitter taste in my mouth from how I played,” Bhatia said in an interview outside the Pinehurst clubhouse. “My finish yesterday and today … it was kind of a weird day. I’m looking forward to another opportunity like this.”

Several golfers at the Open, including world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, said they hit the ball reasonably well but did not like their putting or play around the greens. On No. 2 in the Open, with the greens dry and firm and rolling 13 on the Stimpmeter, things had to be precise and many shots pure to get good scoring chances.

Akshay Bhatia hits from the first fairway during the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament.
Akshay Bhatia hits from the first fairway during the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament.

Bhatia was just the opposite.

“Nah,” he said. “I felt I swung it not great this week. I was hitting a lot of draws, which I don’t normally hit, but that was the only shot I could really hit.

“It’s just weird. To get on this type of golf course, in this type of test, makes you hit shots you don’t hit, typically,” he said. “In (PGA) Tour events, normally, we have bigger margins for error. This week it’s small margins and it can get away from you quick.”

That happened to Bhatia on Saturday, when he bogeyed four of the last six holes. On Sunday, he had an early double-bogey after making a mess of the par-4 third hole, but was steady for much of the round, with three birdies and two bogeys for a 283 total, 3 over par for the Open.

Bhatia, who did not play college golf and turned pro at 17, picked up a PGA Tour win this year at the Valero Texas Open in early April. That got him into the Masters and the PGA Championship — he tied for 35th at Augusta and missed the cut in the PGA.. Bhatia tied for 57th in the 2021 U.S. Open, his first major.

Bhatia, 34th in the World Golf Rankings as he came to Pinehurst, said one goal this year is to earn a spot on the Presidents Cup team for the U.S. Twelve players will make the team, and Bhatia stood 18th in points before the U.S. Open

“I’d love to do that but I’ve got to play a little better, especially in the majors,” he said. “There’s one more major to come by and I look forward to prepping for that and trying to get my hands on the trophy.”

That would be the Claret Jug, given to the British Open champion. The Open will be played July 18-21 at Royal Troon in Scotland.

“It was great to get into a major,” Bhatia said as he prepared to leave Pinehurst. “This is where I want to be, this is what I want to contend in. This is the first feelings of almost being there, and it was cool to experience that.”