[PHOTO: Brennan Asplen]

For a very long time, the last day’s action at the Valero Texas Open seemed normal, perhaps even boring, and the path to explaining how it went crazy starts with a simple fact: Akshay Bhatia held a four-shot lead heading into the final round, and his 67 should have been plenty to coast to his second PGA Tour win.

In fact, it would have been plenty, against 80 of the other 81 players in the weekend field, none of whom shot better than a 66. The bad news for Bhatia is that his second-place challenger was Denny McCarthy, and McCarthy got so scorching hot and tracked Bhatia so relentlessly that he very briefly took the lead. That moment came on the 18th hole when he reinforced his bona fides as one of the world’s greatest putters by pouring in a 12-foot putt for birdie – his seventh straight – to reach 20-under. That gave him a 63 for the round, including an absurd 28 on the back nine, and forced Bhatia to make his 11-foot attempt just to head to a playoff. A sleepy waltz to victory had transformed gradually and then suddenly into a quasi-nightmare, and Bhatia found himself staring down a heartbreaking, unjust defeat.

But he made the putt.

And if all of that seems weird, buckle up, because it was about to get weirder. Because Bhatia, by way of celebration, gave what seemed like a fairly restrained series of fist pumps. Not restrained enough, apparently, because one of those fist pumps threw his shoulder out of its socket. We here at Golf Digest are not medical doctors, but still, it seemed like an inauspicious way to start a playoff.

He spent some of the interval looking for help on his shoulder, but things hadn’t improved when he got to the tee to again play the par-5 18th. He and his opponent hit decent drives, both laid up, and then the impossibly red-hot McCarthy stepped up to hit his 100-yard wedge… and chunked it straight into the creek guarding the green.

Game, set, match… right?

Actually, yes, but at this point nothing about the tournament was straightforward. Sensing that he could actually still win this thing, Bhatia didn’t want to hit his wedge with a potentially screwed up shoulder, and at last, he managed to get some treatment from Aki Tajima, formerly of the Orlando Magic. Only he didn’t want to get his shoulder taped in front of the entire crowd, so they went off to find a quiet place, putting a halt to the proceedings exactly one shot before it was all over.

When he came back, he stuck his wedge close, McCarthy dropped under penalty then failed to hole out, and Bhatia rolled in his birdie to complete the victory and cap a truly bizarre final hour in Texas.

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What else can possibly be said about it? Well, for one thing, 22-year-old Bhatia gets to play in his first Masters this week – which happened to be his mum’s recent birthday wish. For another, it’s more heartbreak for McCarthy, a sublime putter whose closest chance at a PGA Tour win before this also went to a playoff, when he lost the 2023 Memorial to Viktor Hovland. That tournament, too, featured a late hiccup, when McCarthy couldn’t make par on 18 to seal the deal. This time, though, it’s hard to fault the guy who played out of his mind in what seemed for so long like a pipe dream. But if nobody else expected it, Bhatia did.

“Denny played unbelievable, you have to give him credit,” he said. “It’s hard because he’s one of the best players out here and when you see him get hot it’s scary, because I had a six-shot lead going into the back nine and all of the sudden we’re tied going into 18. And then of course he makes that putt, and man, what a crazy, crazy day.”

So what happened with McCarthy’s wedge? It seems as though the culprit may have been a bug, which just about fits with all the other madness of the finish.

“Wish I could have had that wedge shot back there,” McCarthy said. “I backed off a couple times. There was a bug on my ball and some noise in the stands and a bug jumped back on my ball. I probably should have backed away again, but I thought I could kind of not let it distract me and maybe it did a little.”

The good news for McCarthy is that he’s already in Augusta thanks to strong play last year, and his skills with the putter should translate well. He was the third-best putter by strokes gained for the tournament, but perhaps even more surprisingly, he was second only to Bhatia in strokes gained from tee to green.

Photo: Raj Mehta

But it was Bhatia who collected the hardware, and the $US1.66 million, and took the next step in what has been a terrific early career. And he learned – if he needed the lesson – that absolutely nothing is easy when it comes to winning on tour.

The clubs Akshay Bhatia used to win the 2024 Valero Texas Open

“It was hard… you feel like you’re kind of losing, right?” he said. “You’re losing the golf tournament. This guy’s making a ton of birdies, I’m not making any mistakes and yet, you know, I was tied for the lead going into the last… I did such a good job just coming out, sticking to my game plan. I still had to shoot five-under to just get into a playoff.”

Brendon Todd, playing in the final group with Bhatia and McCarthy, limped to the finish with a 71, clearing the way for Rory McIlroy to seize third place with his 66 – tied for the second-best round of the day with Hideki Matsuyama, who finished T-7.