Bitter Rivalry Morphs into Four-Ball Friendship for Carolina Teens May 29, 2017 | Village of Pinehurst, N.C. By Bill Fields

Akshay Bhatia knew he wanted to be a competitive gollfer at the age of 9 and his game has blossomeed in the past six years. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Akshay Bhatia and Grayson Wotnosky have come a long way since meeting in a final-round grouping at the 2012 Donald Ross Junior.

Playing Course No. 1 at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in the 11-and-under age division, the vibe between Bhatia and Wotnosky was as frosty as the weather can be during the annual December tournament.

“I was like, ‘Who is this guy? I really want to beat him,’ ” said Wotnosky, who edged Bhatia by one stroke in the 36-hole competition. “And we were fighting tooth and nail.”

“It’s funny how God teaches you to have good friends,” Bhatia said. “I hated him at the start, honestly. Now we’re like brothers.”

Nearly 4½ years since their rocky introduction, the evolving friendship between the juniors and their families was evident Sunday at Pinehurst Course No. 8, where Bhatia-Wotnosky shot a 4-under 67 to easily qualify for the match play portion of the 3rd U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. The two Wake Forest, N.C., residents, who opened with a 4-under 66 Saturday on Course No. 2, will face one of the survivors from Monday morning’s 8-for-6 playoff at 10:12 a.m. in the Round of 32.

Bhatia, 15, and Wotnosky, 16, are the youngest team to advance to match play, after Californians Ryan Smith, 14, and Dylan Menante, 16, failed to advance after shooting 3-over 144. The cut came at 1-under 140.

“They’ve known each other for almost five years, but in the last 18 months they have been hanging out together and really become best friends,” Grayson’s father, Jeff, said of the two teenagers.

The young men aren’t the only talented golfers in their families. Haeley Wotnosky, 17, who was in their gallery Sunday – with little brother, Davis, 8 – will be a freshman on the women’s team at the University of Virginia in the fall. Akshay’s older sister, Rhea, plays on the women’s team at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., where she is a rising junior.

Akshay, who is called Shay or Shay-Shay by some of his friends, got his first taste of golf as a pre-schooler when he followed Rhea around the course. By the age of 9, he was asking his father, Sonny, what he needed to do to become the best golfer in the world.

“I told him to be the first one at the course, the last one to leave and be a good citizen,” Sonny recalled as he watched his son play Course No. 8. While Wotnosky is home-schooled, Bhatia is doing his studies through an online curriculum. Both are completing the ninth grade.

“He has to be self-disciplined going to school this way,” said Sonny Bhatia. “They expect the students to do the work. You can’t fall behind. He knows what he has to do.”

The friendship between Grayson Wotnosky (above) and Akshay Bhatia has evolved to the point where they feel like brothers. (USGA/Chris Kieane)

Bhatia and Wotnosky kept their wits about them as they made the turn Sunday in good shape to qualify. Grayson saved par for the team on Nos. 10 and 11, then Bhatia birdied the 13th and 14th holes with 10-foot putts, the latter after Wotnosky drove into a water hazard.

“They make an awesome team,” said Haeley, who practices and plays often with Grayson and Akshay. “I think it’s because they spend so much time together. They tag team really well.”

Akshay added: “I’m really happy with our round. We feed off each other. If I was struggling, then he would have my back. And if I was a little off, I’d have his back.”

Bhatia and Wotnosky, who have partnered in a couple of regional four-ball events, enjoy the dynamic of team play. “Everything out here is a learning experience,” Bhatia said. “We’re one of the youngest teams and already we’ve learned a lot about our games [and] how to progress from here – to mentally mellow out. Knowing you have a partner to back you up, you kind of stay more level instead of putting pressure on yourself to play really well. I’ve learned a lot about getting my mental game really chill.”

No one in the Bhatia-Wotnosky camp seemed surprised that the team, already armed with the experience of winning junior events, had such a good stroke-play weekend. Bhatia, after all, recently made it through U.S. Open local qualifying and was seventh in the 2014 North Carolina Amateur at 14. His U.S. Open sectional qualifier is June 5 in Ball Ground, Ga.

“It’s just a continuation of what he’s been doing since he was little,” Sonny said. “He has a goal. He knows what he wants to be. He knows what it takes to get there. He approaches every tournament with a strategy, but I think he’s going to learn a lot from this. “

Each golfer plays a heavy competitive schedule as they plow toward their goals, but it’s not all golf all the time. They will occasionally mix in a little culture like last October when Marque Wotnosky took her two older children and Akshay to an Adele concert in Miami, Fla., driving down one day and back to North Carolina the next. “It was crazy, but it was great,” said Marque.

For now, having accomplished what they wanted in stroke play, the focus is on golf, and the pending match-play rounds that begin on Monday.

“We knew we could compete out here,” Wotnosky said. “As long as we played our own game, we’d be completely fine and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve kind of canceled out all the extra noise. We’re in a comfortable environment here. We’ve played so often here. We knew we could do well coming into this.”

So far, so very good.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who contributes frequently to USGA websites.

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