Two of the nation’s top young golfers explain how they have accomplished so much already yet temper the immense expectations
Akshay Bhatia and Lucy Li are two of America’s most promising golfers, teaming up to win a silver medal in a mixed team event at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina last October.
Individually, they’ve accumulated so many distinctions and firsts: Lucy is the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur (10 years, 8 months, 16 days) and U.S. Women’s Open (11 years, 4 months, 18 days), while Akshay, the nation’s top-ranked junior, raised his profile by winning the Boys Junior PGA Championship in 2017 with a record score of 22 under.
For years, both of their names have been associated with an intimidating and polarizing word: Prodigy.
Akshay actually remembers that he was 12 years old when he first heard the word.
“I asked my father what it meant,” Akshay, now 17, recalls. “But we don’t love the word prodigy. Yes, it means you could be special but… I don’t know. We don’t like to hear it all the time, because I’m just a normal person.”
Lucy, 16, admits that she initially struggled with the expectations not only others had of her but also herself. For instance, she was disappointed not to be able to play last month in the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur due to a thumb injury, yet she optimized her time off by diving deeper into books and her studies. She’s deep into a 1,100-page book on Ulysses S. Grant, penned by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow, and learning how to code.
“What I’ve learned is, everyone has their own timeline,” Lucy says. “Whatever I’m going to do, it’s not completely in my control. I just have to enjoy it and work hard.”
Besides, both Lucy and Akshay love golf, which is why they can’t wait to tune into the PGA Championship, which starts May 13th at Bethpage Black in Long Island, New York.
“I love watching golf,” Lucy says. “I watch like every week, especially the majors. I wish I could play Bethpage with my brother but it’s impossible to get on!”
Though they both have pro potential, Lucy and Akshay are tempering those expectations and focusing on more short-term goals.
Here are four lessons from their journeys:
Foundation of fun
Both Akshay and Lucy happened upon golf, following in the footsteps of an older sibling. For Lucy, it was her big brother Luke, who played in high school. “I was 7 1/2 years old, and we were waiting for him, and I just decided to try it,” she recalls. “I was hitting some balls and I thought, ‘This is so fun!’ ” Akshay was around the same age, when he watched his sister Rhea play junior golf. “That kind of inspired me to take up the game,” he says. “It just looked like so much fun.” Lucy remembers how particular her brother was about golf etiquette and how he would look for the slightest reasons to blame her for missed putts or misdirected shots. “He’s really busy now and works in New York,” Lucy says. “But I love getting to play with him. Golf is a sport you can play with anybody.” Li adds that her parents didn’t pressure her to practice or play. “You just try to make it fun and have them hang out with their friends and do fun things,” she says. “Then it comes naturally for us to want to practice or play.”
Seek some balance
Li says she can grind away, practicing golf, so she’s had to pull herself away. “I’ll take days off and sometimes weeks off,” she says. “I think that really helps me find a balance so I don’t feel like I’m tired or burnt out. It allows me to, ya know, enjoy being a teenager.” While she was allowing her thumb injury to heal, Lucy worked on her education and read more books, including ones on ancient Roman history. Bhatia enjoys different foods, and he likes to play Fortnite on his phone. Interestingly, both Akshay and Lucy both love table tennis. One of Akshay’s highlights at the Youth Olympics was meeting one of the U.S. table tennis players. “I am in love with table tennis,” he says. “I’m not very good but it just kind of inspires me to get better at that.” That’s a goal of Lucy’s too, particularly since her mother was an excellent player in her youth. In fact, Lucy’s family has a table tennis ball machine.
Learn from others
Lucy eagerly takes the advice of her parents, who have masters and doctorate degrees, as well as her mentors Johnny Miller and Mickey Wright. Akshay isn’t shy about approaching tour players and asking them questions. He played a practice round at Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Florida with Jon Rahm, and he considers Dustin Johnson a mentor. One unforgettable moment occurred at the Walker Cup training session in December. Though he was injured and couldn’t play, Akshay was able to join a small group for lunch with Jack Nicklaus. “It was awesome,” Akshay says. “For him to take time out of his day to spend time with us was really cool.”
Akshay has experienced so many highs in recent months, including winning the Dustin Johnson World Junior and Jones Cup championships. But he struggled to defend his title at the Sage Valley Junior Invitational in late April. After shooting a 7-over par, Akshay was 15 shots behind the leader, tied for 50th out of 54 players. But he focused instead of fighting his way back and finishing in the top 20. “I’m always hard on myself, but I learned that a lot of good players don’t talk negative about themselves or their game,” he says. “Negativity is never going to help me in this game.” Akshay points out that he hasn’t been home in a month, so he may have struggled with some mental fatigue and lack of rest. Regardless, he doesn’t want to dwell on the results of one tournament. Lucy says she has felt the weight of putting too much pressure on herself to be successful on the course. But she is working to shift her focus. “I’ve learned that I’m just out here to play the game I love,” she says, “and just have fun because that’s why I started playing golf in the first place. I tell kids to play golf and experience what a great game it is and have fun.”