Akshay Bhatia, Jack Massei only North Carolina qualifiers
By DAVID DROSCHAK
Sonny Bhatia made some recent promises to his son as incentive. One was a round with a caddie at Pinehurst No. 2. The other was a trip to The Masters.
“I made him this stupid promise that I would get him to The Masters, but I didn’t think we would be going until he was 23 or 24 years old,” Bhatia said.
Akshay Bhatia just turned 12, but he’s no ordinary middle school student. Akshay will be heading to Augusta National in early April as one of two North Carolina qualifiers in the first Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, co-sponsored by the USGA and PGA of America.
Jack Massei, the 14-year-old son of Prestonwood Country Club general manager Matt Massei, also qualified in his age group. The two will join 86 other golfers from across the country in a skills competition.
The road to Augusta began with local qualifying at 110 sites. The top two scorers in eight different age/gender brackets from each local qualifier advanced to regional qualifying, which was conducted in 11 regions this past August. Akshay and Jack qualified in Virginia since there were no North Carolina locations.
The top finisher from each site then earned a place in the final, which will be played Sunday prior to the start of the 2014 Masters Tournament, and broadcast live on the Golf Channel.
Akshay, a lefthander who plays out of Heritage Club in Wake Forest, is on a meteoric rise in the junior golfing ranks, so much so that his father has already had to fork over some cash for that round on No. 2. The Pinehurst Promise had to be fulfilled after Akshay won the Donald Ross Junior Championship.
And if his Pinehurst round is any indication, those at The Masters skills competition better take note.
“The course was beating him up,” Sonny Bhatia said. “But on No. 17 he pulled out a hybrid shot at 180 yards. We lost the ball and asked the caddie where it landed. The caddie told him it went over the green. Akshay said: ‘Nope it’s in the hole.’ And son-of-a-gun he was right — his first hole in one on a U.S. Open course. That’s Akshay.”
Sonny Bhatia and his wife had several exchanges about Akshay having to miss school in order to qualify for the skills event.
“I told her ‘let me take him, if I don’t we’ll never know,”’ Sonny Bhatia said. “I felt he could really do it and he really wanted to go.”
So dad put in some of Akshay’s favorite reggae music and the two headed up the highway to Virginia.
“There were some big kids there,” said Sonny Bhatia, whose son is on the slender side but has beaten plenty of high school players in head-to-head competition over the past 18 months. “I told him to just hit some stinger bullets down the middle and let the ball roll. I’m not surprised at all he won.
“This boy is special, this boy is different, he’s not going to go the regular route in golf. I don’t have to say a word, just watch him play 18 holes and you will see for yourself. Parents stop watching their own kids in tournaments and start watching him, watching his demeanor.”
Meanwhile, Luke Massei, who plays on the Green Hope High School team, kept ribbing his little brother about qualifying for the competition after seeing a scroll across the bottom of the TV during the 2013 Masters.
Jack’s mother ended up taking her son to the sectional event while dad remained in Cary.
“They went up to Richmond, which was great because my in-laws live there,” Matt Massei said. “We were thinking, ‘if he gets through great, if not, he got to visit his grandparents.’ Then I start getting texts saying, ‘Jack did really good on the drives.’ Now I’m getting nervous sitting at home. The next thing I know I get a text saying he won.”
Matt Massei, a former Pinehurst Resort golf professional who now oversees Prestonwood’s 54-hole private facility, then took his son to regional qualifying, which also doubled as a visit to his brother.
“We talked about expectations on the trip there,” Matt Massei said. “We said it would be great to win, but let’s just have some fun. My only advice to Jack was to try to get three drives in the grid, don’t worry about how far they go.”
Jack admitted he was nervous.
“When I got up to hit there was a camera right there,” he said.
“When we were walking to the chipping portion Jack looked at me and said, ‘Dad, have you ever been so nervous that you can’t feel your arms and legs? I couldn’t feel my arms and legs on that last drive,’’’ Matt Massei said. “He piped it down the middle though.”
Matt Massei and Jack have actually been to The Masters each of the last two years as spectators. The tables are turned now.
“I definitely want to try to win, but I won’t be as nervous because it can’t get much better than going to The Masters,” Jack said. “It is going to be cool, people watching you instead of you watching them.”
The talented Akshay has a good shot at winning his age bracket, but he’s also positioning for another opportunity.
“He wants to hook up with somebody to play the par-3 course,” Sonny Bhatia said, laughing. “I told him they’re not going to let him, but that’s just the way he is. His passion for golf is just incredible.”
Sonny Bhatia also has a Masters dream.
“I just want to go there to smell the flowers,” he said. “I see it on TV all the time so I really want to smell that stuff. I can’t wait.”