[PHOTO: Raj Mehta]

Twenty hours before, Akshay Bhatia appeared to be coming out on the business end of one of the best back-nine surges in tour history. But that was in San Antonio and now he was in Augusta National, the last man into the Masters field thanks to an audacious, whirlwind finish that Bhatia still can’t explain.

“I really can’t,” Bhatia said overnight, Australian time, nodding to his Valero Texas Open win. “Wire-to-wire is very hard to do, having a six-shot lead with nine holes to go, you feel pretty good about yourself. I was playing really good all day, and Denny [McCarthy] just kind of found this, you know, fire in him. And when a guy shoots 28 on the back, makes – I think he had seven one-putts on the back nine, it’s pretty impressive. Just to be standing here, it’s amazing, and just having the opportunity, the members giving us the opportunity to play their golf course is certainly special, and I can’t wait to be on that first tee on Thursday.”

Akshay Bhatia’s shoulder popped out in bizarre fist-pump injury

That opportunity came with a cost, as Bhatia re-aggravated a shoulder injury while celebrating a converted 11-footer on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. Though it is a cost Bhatia was more than willing to pay, it’s an issue he will have to navigate past this week.

“The shoulder is – you know, it’s going to be a work in progress, for sure,” Bhatia said. “I’ve had it happen two, three times.” Bhatia remarked he had no idea how much pain he was in until after the playoff was over and the adrenaline began to recede.

Bhatia said he’s played through shoulder discomfort before. His plan was to take it easy the rest of Monday, along with some “physio work”. He wasn’t sure what he would do on Tuesday, but felt confident in his ability to play the Par-3 Contest come Wednesday. “I’m hoping my shoulder should be good, but I might be a little scared to hit some shots, and we just got to find out tomorrow,” Bhatia said.

Some rest is more than overdue, however, as Bhatia is playing for the seventh straight week. Monday provided time for reflection for the 22-year-old, who became the first former Drive, Chip & Putt contestant to make the Masters.

“I remember we had, they were hosting us in a hotel, all the participants,” Bhatia said about his 2014 experience. “And I was in an elevator, John Daly walks in, and I’m like this guy’s got a Diet Coke, hood on. And I realised it was John Daly, so it was really cool to kind of see him in the flesh for once.

“Yeah, just driving up Magnolia Lane with all the kids, met a lot of new friends. I remember we were in the hotel, and we got one of the Masters cups from the tournament, and this – we had a couple of us, but we all grabbed our putters and just were putting on the carpet in the hotel and just having a bunch of fun, really. Then I remember coming out watching the practice rounds on Tuesday. We were sitting on hole four in the grandstands, and it was just so surreal. I remember how bad I wanted to be out there and not just watch. Now being here and being the first Drive, Chip & Putt participant in the Masters is really cool. So I’m hoping this can inspire a lot of kids that are having the opportunity to play.”

Injury aside, it’s easy to envision Bhatia enjoying success in his Masters debut. He enters the week ranked fourth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained this season, and is up to 34th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But no matter what happens, Bhatia’s focus is on appreciating the opportunity for what it is.

“I think soaking in what just happened is important. You don’t get to kind of have those opportunities too much,” Bhatia said. “I waited seven, eight months to kind of get those feelings of singing in the car on the way to the airport and just kind of bouncing up and down on the plane ride.

“But, you know, today I’m still going to soak it in. Tomorrow is kind of, OK, what’s our goals for the week, and just get ready to tee it up. So it’s another golf tournament. It’s a very special tournament. But at the end of the day, one of us is going to win. So that’s kind of my goal. And, yeah, I’m excited to tee it up.”