19-year-old Akshay Bhatia silences the critics, wins on Korn Ferry Tour in first start as a member

Akshay Bhatia is in position to earn a PGA Tour card sooner rather than later after his win on the Korn Ferry Tour.

“Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t make it impossible.”

That’s right, Akshay Bhatia, and now you’re a Korn Ferry Tour winner at 19.

Bhatia turned pro when he was 17 and received backlash for the decision. Now, just two years later he’s in position to earn a PGA Tour card sooner rather than later. And for the cherry on top, this was the young man’s first appearance on the Korn Ferry Tour as a full member.

The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay served as the Tour’s season-opener this week. Entering the final round, Bhatia found himself three back of the lead needing a low number on Wednesday to have a chance.

He did just that.

His final day 7-under 65 was his best round of the week by three shots (Saturday, 68). The exclamation point? This dart at the last.

The closing birdie was just one of Bhatia’s seven on the day, a perfect ending to a bogey-free effort.

And if you needed another reminder of how weird this game is, his caddie for the week doesn’t know golf. At all.

Bhatia has worked with George Gankas, coach to Matthew Wolff, Sung Kang, among others, for a few years and Bhatia has him (and a lot of hard work) to thank for being in this position.

Another man in his corner is Phil Mickelson, who this time last year played with Bhatia in a practice round before the American Express.

“For me, to play with young kids like Akshay, who are so talented, it actually motivates me and it makes me feel and remember what it felt like to play golf as a kid, when I was a kid, and the love and passion that I have for it because as he starts out on his career, you can see and sense his excitement for the game, his drive, his motivation, his work ethic, and that is infectious,” Mickelson said. “I enjoy being around, and always have enjoyed being around good talented young players like this, and I’m happy to answer any questions that they may have, but I also feed off of their energy, work ethic, and drive.”

The youngster made nine starts on the PGA Tour last season highlighted by a T-9 performance at the Safeway Open.

Bhatia, with this win, quickly silenced the doubters who believed he made a mistake turning pro too early. The kid is a stud.

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Korn Ferry Tour Q-School’s Monday finish features clutch late birdie to break four-way tie for medalist honors

Check out who earned status for the 2022 KFT season.

On Monday the final stage of Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School wrapped up play, with one player earning fully exempt status for the 2022 season, nine earning 12 guaranteed starts and a whopping 39 earning eight starts.

Zack Fischer, the 32-year-old Texas grad who missed the cut in his lone start on the KFT last season, made a birdie on his final hole at the Landings Club in Savannah, Georgia, to secure medalist honors by one shot over rookie Jonathan Brightwell. Fischer was one of just four players to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds of the final stage, which was delayed a day by inclement weather.

Joining Brightwell at 13 under were Vincent Norrman and Andre Kozan. Michael Feagles and Sam Stevens finished T-5 at 11 under followed by Grant Hirshman (-10), Andrew Yun (-9), Conner Godsey (-7) and Tain Lee (-6). All will have 12 starts next season.

The following players will have eight guaranteed starts in 2022:

  • Patrick Newcomb
  • Thomas Rosenmuller
  • Jeremy Paul
  • Patrick Cover
  • Thomas Walsh
  • J. Crouch
  • Chris Baker
  • Tripp Kinney
  • Mac Meissner
  • Garett Reband
  • Luis Gagne
  • Augusto Núñez
  • Corey Pereira
  • Blayne Barber
  • Brad Brunner
  • Will Gordon
  • Steven Fisk
  • Kyle Westmoreland
  • Brett White
  • Nicolas Echavarria
  • Carson Young
  • Martin Contini
  • Scott Harrington
  • Tano Goya
  • Mark Anguiano
  • Eric Cole
  • Ben Griffin
  • Pontus Nyholm
  • Matt McCarty
  • José de Jesús Rodríguez
  • Clay Feagler
  • Seonghyeon Kim
  • John Augenstein
  • Alexandre Rocha
  • John Pak
  • Brandon Crick
  • Peyton White
  • Davis Thompson
  • Justin Suh

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Joseph Bramlett wins Korn Ferry Tour Championship, will be fully exempt on PGA Tour next season

Check out who earned their PGA Tour cards for next season from the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.

Joseph Bramlett shot a pair of 65s over the weekend to win the Korn Ferry Tour Championship and earn full exempt status for the 2021-22 PGA Tour season.

Bramlett started his final round a shot back of the lead and opened with a bogey. On his back nine, he rode a surge of five consecutive birdies on Nos. 12-16 at Victoria National Golf Club in Newburgh, Indiana, and ran away with a four-shot victory.

“It’s a huge deal, man. Every week you’re playing for life-changing opportunities,” he said. “Yeah, it took me a long time to get my card back in 2019 and it was one of the biggest days of my life. So I’m just so excited and congratulatory to everybody who got their first card today. It’s a really, really big deal.”

Also earning full status in the big leagues next season: Stephan Jaeger, who finished No. 1 in the season-long points standings for The 25. Bramlett and Jaeger also earned a spot in the 2022 Players Championship.

Trey Mullinax, who had the solo lead after each of the first three rounds, fell short of going wire-to-wire but still earned a PGA Tour card. With his parents, wife and two kids in the gallery for the weekend rounds, Mullinax posted a final-round 70 to finish solo second at 16 under.

This was the final chance for several golfers to earn their 2021-22 PGA Tour cards and it went down to the wire for Justin Lower, who needed to get up-and-down for par on the 18th hole and he did just that. He nabbed the 25th spot in the Finals 25.

The Finals 25

  1. Joseph Bramlett
  2. Trey Mullinax
  3. Aaron Rai *
  4. Bronson Burgoon
  5. Christiaan Bezuidenhout
  6. J.J. Spaun
  7. Hayden Buckley *
  8. Sahith Theegala *
  9. Matthias Schwab *
  10. Vincent Whaley
  11. John Huh
  12. Alex Smalley *
  13. Joshua Creel *
  14. Lucas Herbert
  15. Callum Tarren *
  16. Scott Gutschewski
  17. Dawie van der Walt
  18. Kelly Kraft
  19. Michael Gligic
  20. Patrick Rodgers
  21. Kiradech Aphibarnrat
  22. Austin Cook
  23. Kurt Kitayama *
  24. Peter Uihlein
  25. Justin Lower *

Rookies denoted by *

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Trey Mullinax looks to go wire-to-wire, and secure PGA Tour card, at Korn Ferry Tour Championship

Trey Mullinax needed a top-20 finish this week to secure his PGA Tour card. He’s in great position to do that and more.

Trey Mullinax opened with a course record-tying 63. He followed that up with a Friday 71 to lead by one heading to the weekend. On Saturday, Mullinax posted a 68 to get to 14 under and will keep that one-shot lead through 54 holes.

On Sunday, he’ll look to close out a wire-to-wire win in the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship.

Joseph Bramlett and John Huh each shot the round the day, a 65. Bramlett is solo second at 13 under; Huh is solo third at 12 under. Lee Hodges and Hayden Buckley are tied for fifth at 11 under at Victoria National Golf Club in Newburgh, Indiana.

Mullinax has battled several injuries to his feet and back over the last few seasons. He missed the KFT’s top 25 from this season which meant he still had work to do this week to secure his PGA Tour card for next season.

“I knew how important this week was. I was trying to treat it like any other tournament, though,” he said after Saturday’s round.

A top-20 finish would do it. He’s in great position now to get back to the big leagues.

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Trey Mullinax takes step towards PGA Tour with bogey-free 63 to lead Korn Ferry Tour Championship

PGA Tour cards are just three rounds away at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship.

Have a day, Trey Mullinax.

The former All-American at Alabama was rolling like the Tide on Thursday at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, the third and final event of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.

The 29-year-old shot a bogey-free 9-under 63 at Victoria National Golf Club in Indiana to take not only the early lead, but also a crucial step towards his PGA Tour card. Twenty-five players moved on to the Tour through the KFT regular season. Nine more players have already earned their cards for next season through the Finals 25 via the first two Finals events, leaving 16 left to be claimed this week.

Tyson Alexander made birdie on four of his last seven holes to climb into second place, two shots back at 7 under. Andrew Novak, who already earned his PGA Tour card, sits T-3 at 5 under alongside Hayden Buckley and Tommy Gainey, who are each looking to earn their way to the next level.

The shot of the day came from 40-year-old Ricky Barnes, who let out a “get lucky” when his tee shot on the par-3 16th ricocheted off a rock and shot across the green to the rough. Barnes, the 2002 U.S. Amateur champion, sits T-48 at even par.

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Here is everything you need to know for the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Championship

25 more players will earn their way to the PGA Tour this weekend.

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – The thrilling finish to the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour season takes place this week with the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance.

This will be the 10th year Victoria National Golf Club has hosted the second tier to the PGA Tour. Following a change in 2019, it is also the final stop on tour with PGA cards on the line by the end of the week.

It is always an exciting four days of golf played by some of the best in the country. Here is what you need to know for this year’s event.

What is at stake?

The Korn Ferry Tour Championship is the third and final event of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, with the second set of 25 PGA Tour cards being awarded at the conclusion of the tournament.

Nine players have already crossed the 210-point threshold the Korn Ferry Tour is currently using as its fail-safe number for players to finish inside The Finals 25, leaving 16 available PGA Tour cards this week.

MaCabe Brown / Courier & Press

The schedule

The tournament started Thursday morning and will continue through Sunday with first-round tee times scheduled from 6:50 a.m. to 2 p.m. According to weather.com, the forecast calls for temperatures in the low 80s with only Saturday showing possible rain.

Golf Channel will have live coverage of the first two rounds from 10 a.m. to noon ET. The final two days are scheduled to be shown on tape delay: 8-10 p.m. on Saturday) and 7-9 p.m. on Sunday.

Are tickets available?

Last year, the event was restricted to athletes and essential personnel. That isn’t the case for the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Championship.

Tickets are still available for purchase through tourchampulf.com/tickets/. Among those listed are daily hospitality suites with amenities. A weekly general admission ticket is $40 and daily admission ticket is $20.

The Field

There are several players to keep an eye on this week.

Defending champion Brandon Wu returns with a chance to make history. No player in the 32 years of the Korn Ferry Tour has successfully defended the Tour Championship. Wu shot a 7-under 65 in the final round last year to win by one shot at 18 under.

MaCabe Brown / Courier & Press

He isn’t the only past champion of the event with Matt Every (2009) and Tom Lewis (2019) also in the event. The field is also headlined by 19 members of The 25, including five of the top 10 in the points standings. There are 72 past Korn Ferry Tour winners with 98 total wins, led by Tommy Gainey and Adam Svensson with three apiece.

There are also 21 past PGA Tour winners including Aaron Baddeley, Sean O’Hair and Camilo Villegas.

While 25 Korn Ferry Tour players already earned their PGA Tour cards through the regular season, a separate points list for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals determines the The Finals 25. The player who earns the most points during the three Finals events (excluding those from the regular season) will earn fully exempt status on the PGA Tour for the 2021-22 season, as well as an invitation to The Players Championship.

Here is the top 10 going into the Tour Championship: Bronson Burgoon, Aaron Rai, J.J. Spaun, Vincent Whaley, Callum Tarren, Lucas Herbert, Matthias Schwab, Scott Gutschewski, Alex Smalley and Sahith Theegala.

MaCabe Brown / Courier & Press

Victoria National Golf Club

The Tom Fazio-design is listed as the 47th best golf course in America, according to Golf Digest. It has also considered one of the toughest stops on the Korn Ferry Tour.

Victoria National was ranked among the top-three six consecutive seasons from 2013-18, and it was the No. 1-ranked toughest course in 2015, 2016, and 2018. A par 72, scores have been higher the past two years after previously hosting a Tour event in late April or early July.

Even playing under different conditions, the course remains brutal for those not playing well. The final stretch on the back nine is considered among the toughest closing holes on Tour.

Follow Courier & Press sports reporter Kyle Sokeland on Twitter @kylesokeland.

JJ James, 80, brings wisdom and wit to Korn Ferry Tour caddie job

Carrying a 35-pound bag of clubs in 90-degree heat, JJ James is just two years removed from heart bypass surgery.

COLUMBUS — Hylton “JJ” James does not look a day over 79. But he is. By 125 days. And if, God forbid, the 80-year-old Korn Ferry Tour caddie doesn’t make it to his next April birthday he wants his last breath to be on the golf course.

Drop right there, like a 30-foot birdie putt.

“I’ll caddie until I drop dead. I’m serious about that,” James said, standing in what little shade was available at the Ohio State Scarlet Course after finishing caddying for Ben Kohles at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship.

“Who cares?” James continued. “You don’t know how you’re going to die, and then once you die you don’t know that you died anyway. You don’t get up and say, ‘Well, I didn’t want to die on the golf course. I wanted to die around the corner at a bar somewhere.’ I’d rather die here than at some hospital and convalescent home.”

If talk of death makes you uncomfortable, especially for James, know that the great-grandfather from Brooklyn fears worse things than the coffin. Like double bogeys and three-putts.

“Three-putts are just wasteful. You’re on the green and you leave with a bogey,” he muttered.

That is the club-toting caddie talking. The one who wipes irons clean and helps determine wind direction and club choice while carrying a 35-pound bag of clubs in 90-degree heat — just two years removed from heart bypass surgery.

Ben Kohles, Hylton “JJ” James
Caddie Hylton “JJ” James says, “I’ve never thought of myself as a great caddie. A good caddie. A journeyman. I know what I’m doing and if a guy plays his game I’ll do my part.” Photo by Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

But there also is James the therapist and counselor, who cajoles and cares for his player when no one else will.

“I’ve told my guys when things get heated, ‘I’m not here to harm you. In fact, I’m the only person on this golf course that gives a bleep about you,’ ” James said. “The rest of these guys could care less if Ben Kohles shoots 80, 90 or 100.”

Since leaving his job as a Los Angeles nightclub manager in 1985 to carry clubs, James has learned lessons that come from spending long and often lonely hours with the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour players, walking more than 25,000 miles along the way.

Before Kohles, who James has been with for five years, there was Mike Hulbert, Robert Wrenn and former Ohio State player Chris Perry. Somewhere in there were Isao Aoki and Joe Osaki, Charlie Hoffman, Bo Van Pelt, Charlie Reimer, Chez Reavie, Kelly Kraft, Tag Ridings and Chase Wright.

But Kohles might be the most special of them all, not necessarily for his talent but for how he touched James emotionally like few other players would.

Following heart surgery in May 2019, James obviously needed time off. Less obvious was how Kohles would handle the situation. Turns out with loyalty and compassion.

“Ben stood by me when 99 percent of the pros on this tour or any tour would have let me go when I had the heart attack,” James said, tearing up. “They woulda said, ‘JJ, you oughta go home now, and if you get a little better maybe we’ll be back together.’ Instead, he came to me and said, ‘Don’t worry about the bag or money. I’ll use other caddies and when you get well and are ready to go, this is your job.’ That’s where the emotion comes from. I caddie for him like he’s my grandson.”

Kohles, who James predicts will become a contending PGA Tour player within two years, clearly has a soft spot for his caddie. And like his bag man, Kohles does not worry about what happens if James collapses on the course.

“He’s happy doing what he’s doing,” said the 31-year-old, who won the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in 2012. “And there’s no better way he’d rather go, anyway, so I’m not worried about it.”

I asked James what makes a good caddie.

“A great player,” he said. “Tiger Woods woulda won the same amount of tournaments with me, too. And that’s no putdown on Steve (Williams). It’s just that he’s a great player. So that’s pretty much it. I’ve never thought of myself as a great caddie. A good caddie. A journeyman. I know what I’m doing and if a guy plays his game I’ll do my part.”

I asked Kohles why James? What does an 80-year-old bring to the table?

“Comedy,” he said. “He brings comic relief sometimes, when I need it. I get upset at him, too, but that’s the nature of it. Everyone gets mad at their caddie.”

James knows when the anger is coming, but after working with so many irritable golfers — “Charley Hoffman and I are good friends, but he’ll wear you out on the golf course,” James said — he mostly lets it slide off, knowing there are bigger problems than whether his player missed a fairway.

That perspective comes into play when calming Kohles, who like most players gets upset when things go sideways.

“I’m 80. He’s 31,” James said. “I don’t get as ramped up as fast as he does. I’m like, ‘Son, settle down. There’s a lot more important things than this.’ People are dying in Afghanistan. People are dying from COVID. And these kids on these plaques …”

More tears. The dam burst as James recalled reading signs posted around Scarlet that tell the stories of cancer patients at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

“I passed one and got emotional,” he said. “This little kid has leukemia. And a lot of these (players) are running around bitching about their score or the course or whatever. Give me a break.”

Please make it to 81 and far beyond, JJ. More than just golfers need you.

A former Big Ten player of the year looks right at home in Columbus this week

David Lipsky’s mettle held out longer than his metal during the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course.

David Lipsky’s mettle held out longer than his metal during the first round of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship Thursday at the Ohio State Scarlet Course.

Lipsky broke the face of his titanium driver on his last hole of the day, which may have contributed to his drive sailing into the left rough, but the 33-year-old Northwestern graduate got up and down from behind the green to finish at 8 under par and head to Friday’s second round of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals tied with Stephan Jaeger after matching 63s.

“Never had that happen before,” Lipsky said of the broken driver, which he replaced after the round with a driver from an old set of clubs kept by his college teammate Jonathan Bowers, a Watterson graduate who lives close to Scarlet.

“Luckily for me, my roommate from Northwestern is from Columbus and he has my old clubs, so he has a few backups I can try (on Friday),” Lipsky said.

Lipsky and Jaeger lead a field of 137 players jockeying for position in the Finals, a three-event playoff format in which the top 25 finishers earn PGA Tour cards.

The two leaders, who already secured their cards through the regular-season points standings, are familiar with sharing the lead at the end of a round. Jaeger defeated Lipsky in a playoff to win the Emerald Coast Classic in Destin, Florida in April.

PGA Tour veteran Bo Van Pelt and 24-year-old Englishman Harry Hall sit two shots back after carding 65s. Ohio State graduate Ryan Armour shot 66 and former Buckeye Bo Hoag shot 69. Defending NCHC champion Curtis Luck shot 66.

Thursday’s round experienced a weather delay of 1:08 as lightning passed through the area.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

This Ohio journeyman is so close to his PGA Tour dream (and he shot a 67 on Thursday)

Needing to make an 8-foot putt on the last hole of the 2018 Korn Ferry Championship to reach the PGA Tour, his putt burned the edge.

Justin Lower takes no offense with being labeled a journeyman golfer.

“It fits,” said the 32-year-old from Canal Fulton, Ohio, whose six seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour have included tons of rough road trips and a fair share of heartbreak.

Nothing hurt Lower (pronounced Lauer) more than an excruciating brush with golf greatness. Needing to make an 8-foot putt on the last hole of the 2018 Korn Ferry Championship to reach his goal of moving up to the PGA Tour, Lower’s putt burned the edge of the cup, a miss that ultimately kept him $500 short of earning PGA Tour status.

Hard moments like that leave scar tissue. Lower tried to bandage the wound by using the missed putt as motivation, but the psychological ploy backfired.

“I learned the hard way that it was hurting me more than anything,” he said on Thursday after shooting a 4-under-par 67 that put him near the top of the leaderboard at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship at the Ohio State Scarlet Course.

A top-10 finish this week would put the Malone University graduate and 2010 NAIA Nicklaus Award winner in a strong position to finish among the top 25 players receiving PGA Tour cards at the completion of the three-event Finals next week.

Rather than focus on his 8-foot failure, Lower flipped the switch by viewing tapes of him coming through in the clutch.

“There’s a video I watch from the finals of the 2017 Q School where on the last hole I knew I needed the putt to get guaranteed starts (on the Korn Ferry Tour),” he said. “It was about a 12-footer and I poured it right in.”

Not bad for a journeyman.

Lower told himself in 2012 that he would give professional golf about seven years, and if he did not reach the PGA Tour by then he would find another career.

Nearly a decade later and he’s still grinding away, chasing a dream that continues to elude him. What gives?

“I just love the game,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything else. It’s fun. I have an unbelievable support system: wife, family and friends. I’m lucky, for sure. I have one of the best jobs in the world.”

The challenge is remembering how blessed he is, especially when things are not going as planned on the golf course. He cites lack of patience as the thorn in his side.

“I’m always working on my attitude and keeping level-headed. That’s not easy for me,” he said. “I need to learn to not get greedy at the wrong times.”

The final step in mental evolution is believing in himself the way others do.

“I think I’ve got every shot. Everyone tells me that,” he said. “Everyone says it’s my time Whether it is or not we’ll see.”

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

At Korn Ferry Tour regular-season finale, 25 PGA Tour cards earned for next season

The regular season-ending Korn Ferry Tour event proved to be a big day for 25 golfers who earned a promotion for next season.

The Korn Ferry Tour regular-season finale in Omaha carried extra weight for many in the field. Yes, the goal was to win the tournament, but an even bigger accomplishment was achieved by 25 golfers who earned their PGA Tour cards for the 2021-22 season.

Stephan Jaeger, the 2020-21 points leader, took the outright lead at the Pinnacle Bank Championship on Saturday with a 90-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at The Club at Indian Creek. But his pursuit of a third victory of the season fell short when he shot  even-par 71in the final round and tied for fourth. Jaeger still held onto his points lead, and will be fully exempt when he moves on to the big leagues next season.

David Skinns won the Pinnacle Bank Championship, an event he also won in 2018 for his most recent win on the circuit. Skinns closed in 67 for a 14-under 270 total, one shot better than Jared Wolfe and Zecheng (Marty) Dou. The victory vaulted Skinns from 46th place in the points race all the way to 22nd, securing his 2021-22 PGA Tour card.

The list of 25 who earned their Tour cards

1. Stephan Jaeger, 2804
2. Mito Pereira, 2556
3. Chad Ramey, 2480
4. Taylor Moore, 2271
5. Taylor Pendrith, 2154
6. Greyson Sigg, 2125
7. Davis Riley, 2006
8. Jared Wolfe, 1880
9. Will Zalatoris, 1876
10. Lee Hodges, 1851
11. Adam Svensson, 1821
12. David Lipsky, 1782
13. Brandon Wu, 1735
14. Max McGreevy, 1732
15. Paul Barjon, 1729
16. Andrew Novak, 1692
17. Dylan Wu, 1675
18. Seth Reeves, 1651
19. Cameron Young, 1642
20. Nick Hardy, 1597
21. Curtis Thompson, 1549
22. David Skinns, 1547
23. Ben Kohles, 1497
24. Brett Drewitt, 1487
25. Austin Smotherman, 1439

Next up for those who missed out on the Top 25? Those finishing Nos. 26-75 as well as non-member qualifiers and medical extensions can still earn their card through the Korn Ferry Tour Playoffs. There will be 25 more Tour cards up for grabs but the three-event playoffs will also feature PGA Tour golfers who finished Nos. 126 to 200 in the FedEx Cup points race.

The three KFT playoff events are:

  • Albertsons Boise Open, Boise, Idaho, Aug. 19-22
  • Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 26-29
  • Korn Ferry Tour Championship, Newburgh, Indiana, Sept. 2-5