Akshay Bhatia, with the late Grayson Murray in his thoughts, contending in US Open

Akshay Bhatia two-putted from 70 feet for par at his last hole of the day Friday in the U.S Open at Pinehurst No. 2, signed his scorecard, did a brief media interview and jumped into a waiting Lexus van for a ride.

But not to go in the Pinehurst clubhouse, cool off and relax after a brutally hot day in the Sandhills. He gave family and friends a few hugs and bounded down the steps to the practice range, making half swings as he walked, his mind already back to business.

Bhatia, from Wake Forest, had a one-over-par 71 in the second round. Following up his 68 on Thursday, the slender 22-year-old lefthander stands one under par through 36 holes at 139, and is in contention in the major championship.

As Bhatia put it, “Anything under par at the halfway point is good.”

On a day when most of the golfers with Triangle ties struggled trying to make the cut, he suffered the least. He was low “919” man in the clubhouse, but only after scrambling to make par on seven of his last nine holes.

“It was a tough start to the day, missed a couple short putts, and wasn’t feeling great about my golf swing,” Bhatia said. “But I managed to kind of stay patient and made a lot of pars.”

Bhatia flashed a smile, saying, “Thankfully, I didn’t go birdie-free.”

Bhatia did birdie the par-5 fifth hole, his 14th of the round, getting up and down from off the green, chipping to two feet.

Off the green was where he found himself often, especially on his last nine holes at No. 2. But his chipping and putting around and on the No. 2 greens — he says he has a new short-game coach but won’t say who — was more than solid enough.

Jun 14, 2024; Pinehurst, North Carolina, USA; Akshay Bhatia lines up a putt on the 13th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst No. 2. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2024; Pinehurst, North Carolina, USA; Akshay Bhatia lines up a putt on the 13th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst No. 2. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

“My short game is really good right now and that’s kind of what you need to stay in U.S. Opens and major championships,” he said. “Yeah, it was nice. I felt like I was seeing and feeling every chip.”

At the third hole (his 12th), Bhatia missed the green to the right and his chip left him 18 feet for par. But he drained it.

“That kind of kept the momentum going,” he said. “Otherwise, it could have been a different story.”

Bhatia’s golf story has become well known. After his family moved to Wake Forest, he was homeschooled and did not play college golf. One of the nation’s best junior players, he turned pro at 17 and won on the Korn Ferry Tour before making the jump to the PGA Tour and now winning twice.

Bhatia’s first tour victory was at the Barracuda Classic in July 2023, an event played opposite the British Open. His second came at the 2024 Valero Texas Open in April, when he won a playoff against Denny McCarthy.

Listed at 6-1 and 130 pounds, Bhatia tied McCarthy at 20 under par, nine shots ahead of Rory McIlroy in San Antonio. Oddly, Bhatia hurt his left shoulder on the 18th hole — pumping his arm too hard after knocking in a birdie putt to force the playoff.

The victory got him into the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, which Bhatia first experienced at age 12 as a competitor and finalist in the Drive, Chip & Putt contest before the tournament.

Bhatia also qualified for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and expected to be playing with an old buddy from Raleigh, Grayson Murray. When Murray won the Sony Open this year in Hawaii, Bhatia was there to help celebrate Murray’s big moment.

“We’re going to push each other to be No. 1 and 2 in the world,” Murray said.

“Let’s go, baby,” Bhatia said.

Murray died May 25, his parents later saying he took his own life. His passing has left Bhatia and others in shock and sadness, wondering what, if anything, they could have done.

Bhatia, No. 34 in the World Golf Ranking, has something in mind for this week: win the U.S. Open.

“One of my goals was to enjoy and embrace this opportunity I have,” he said. “Playing in a major championship in my home state, an hour and a half from home, is really special. If I get upset out there, I just have to realize and look into the crowd and think ‘This is pretty cool.’

“Grayson Murray and I were good friends and we were kind of the North Carolina boys. I’m trying to make him proud this week. I know he’s looking over me.”

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