Last Wednesday afternoon on a wind-blown island in the Bahamas, 19-year-old Akshay Bhatia won for the first time on the Korn Ferry Tour, nearly jarring his approach shot on the finishing hole while solidifying his decision to take the career path less traveled.
One day later and one ocean away, 50-year-old David Duval began his senior golf career in Hawaii, hopeful but uncertain about how well he might play, how often he will play and how close he can come to recapturing the wizardry that made him No. 1 in the world and one of the most interesting players of his generation.
Two players, two places in time, sunrise and sunset.
The game’s elasticity allows Bhatia and Duval to be who they are and where they are, each chasing his own measure of success at different spots on the timeline.
What they have in common is the courage of their own convictions.
Bhatia decided before his 17th birthday that he didn’t need college golf to succeed. He would play his way onto the PGA Tour and his victory in the Bahamas represents a broad jump in that direction after two underwhelming years.
Duval had a swing, a build and a mindset that scraped against convention and all of those things made him what he was – the name on the leaderboard that Tiger Woods said turned his head.
Like far-flung relatives arriving for an overdue family reunion, there are different ways to get there and the path taken isn’t as important as arriving at the destination.
Bhatia is still a week shy of his 20th birthday but it feels like he’s been on the radar for a long time. Here’s what he told The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina (he grew in nearby Wake Forest), when he chose his path as a 16-year-old:
“I probably started thinking about turning pro and not going to college when I was in eighth grade. At the time, you never know what’s going to happen but I just progressed and progressed until last year I dominated.
“In college, I’d be playing against these same kids. I really just started to think about it: Am I going to get better doing this, playing against those exact same people, or step right up and play against the big leagues?”
Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, to name a few, made themselves better by playing college golf. Bhatia, who was home-schooled, chose the golf course to be his classroom, knowing full well that Ty Tryon’s career flamed out trying a similar path a decade earlier.
His victory in the Bahamas made him the third-youngest winner in Korn Ferry Tour history, behind Jason Day and Sungjae Im.
Until last week, Bhatia’s list of professional achievements was nearly as empty as grocery store shelves before a snowstorm in the south. He had made four cuts in 18 PGA Tour starts and played the weekend just twice in four previous Korn Ferry Tour starts.
Now, Bhatia’s world has opened up.
“I’ve just climbed the mountain slowly and slowly and slowly,” Bhatia told reporters after his win.
He sits atop the Korn Ferry points list and with full status on the tour, Bhatia has put himself in position to keep climbing.
And for a few days more, he’s still a teenager.
Duval knows what it’s like to stand atop that mountain. For a four-year period from 1997 through 2000, Duval – who projected an insular almost menacing persona from behind his wraparound shades – was brilliant. He won 13 times before his 30th birthday, became the first player to shoot 59 on Sunday when he won the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and he twice bumped Woods from the No. 1 world ranking.
His crowning achievement was winning the 2000 Open Championship and not long after, he commented that the feeling wasn’t all he had anticipated.
“It’s a bit of what I call an existential moment,” Duval told me four years ago. “I think it was within a month or two of winning the Open. It wasn’t a letdown or anything. It was all the times I played well and not finished it off or got beat or outplayed. Of all the tournaments I won around the world in professional golf, I still maintain that the Open is the worst I played.
“Don’t take that as I played poorly. But of all the wins, I feel that was the worst I played in all the tournaments I won. After you chase it down and could have won four straight Masters and had a chance at a U.S. Open or two, it’s like how does this happen? This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t compute.”
More than two decades later, Duval is starting over. He has been an excellent television analyst, offering sharp and unfiltered opinions, and he’s uncertain how much television work he will continue to do.
Duval intends to make about 20 starts on the PGA Tour Champions, giving himself a chance to develop a routine unlike the sporadic tour starts he’s made in recent years which produced little success.
“There’s some nervousness and some excitement and anxious, because I haven’t competed consistently for a very long time, but the opportunity to do that is just putting a smile on my face,” Duval said last week.
His goal is simple.
“Have a lot of fun,” Duval said.
Sunrise and sunset.
Both beautiful in their own ways.
Top: Akshay Bhatia during the Bahamas Great Exuma Classic