April 21, 2018: Friday’s second round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley offered a glaring resemblance to the opening round. Sage Valley showed its teeth as the 54-player field grinded through another 18 holes, and a familiar name is listed at the top of the leaderboard.
Akshay Bhatia owns the 36-hole advantage after he fired off a 2-under 70. His two-day total of 138 (68-70) leads Ricky Castillo (72-70-142) by four strokes.
As was the case during Thursday’s first round, Bhatia was once again faced with a level of adversity that would test the mental toughness of the game’s best, regardless of age. Playing the par-3 2nd hole; Bhatia’s tee shot splashed into the water, and he would ultimately settle for a double-bogey. His playing partner, round one co-leader Ludvig Åberg, birdied to gain the outright lead.
A day prior, Bhatia mistakenly employed the use of his rangefinder on the par-5 4th, which would net a two-stroke penalty resulting in a double-bogey. He responded with 14 bogey-free holes to close his round, including four birdies.
On Friday, Bhatia arguably surpassed his resilient performance from the first round. Following the mishap at the 2nd, he rattled off three consecutive birdies and would add two more at holes 8 and 9 for a front-nine 33.
“Two was playing very tough today,” said Bhatia, a Wake Forest, North Carolina resident. “Going into that hole was a little nerve-wracking. I took my medicine. But everyone is going to have a bogey or double out here. It’s about minimizing mistakes and taking advantage of the holes you can.”
A dropped stroke on the par-4 13th was recovered with a birdie on the par-5 15th. He would bogey the 17th as well, but through the first two days, Bhatia, the reigning Boys Junior PGA Champion, has stood out amongst the world’s best junior golfers.
“I’ll have a good mindset going into tomorrow,” said Bhatia. “Have a goal. That’s what I did at Junior PGA. Everyone’s going to be chasing me, but I feel like I’m playing really well. As long as I have the mental mindset about winning then I think I got it.”
Playing in his second Junior Invitational, Castillo charged into contention with a 2-under 70, which featured four birdies and two bogeys. The future Florida Gator played steady throughout the day and took advantage of scoring opportunities.
“I knew it was going to play tough today, just remembering the pin positions last year,” said Castillo, a product of Yorba Linda, California. “You have to put it in the middle of greens and try to make putts. You can’t be too aggressive out there; otherwise, you’re going to make big numbers. Playing here last year is an advantage. You definitely have to know the golf course and do your work.”
It was an up-and-down round for Sweden’s Åberg, who finished with 3 birdies, 4 bogeys, and a closing double-bogey en route to a 3-over 75. He briefly held a three-stroke advantage after two holes, but was unable to maintain any sort of momentum. Despite the uphill battle that Åberg (68-75-143) faces in Saturday’s final round, he remains confident.
“I had a really tough day today,” said Åberg. “I actually thought my ball striking was as good as yesterday. But I really got off slow with my putter. It’s disappointing to not be in a better position for tomorrow, but I’m still able to shoot a good round tomorrow and maybe have a shot. I’ll practice tonight with my putter and stick to my routine.”
Frankie Capan of North Oaks, Minnesota (74-70-144) and Matias Honkala of Finland (76-69-145) round out the top five.
The Junior Invitational at Sage Valley is widely recognized as one of the premier junior tournaments in the world. It annually attracts many of the game’s top-ranked junior golfers, creating what is considered the toughest field in junior golf.
PGA of America