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Bhatia carries four-shot lead into final round at Junior Invitational

April 21, 2018 GMT

GRANITEVILLE — For the second day in a row, potential disaster struck Akshay Bhatia in the form of a double bogey early in his round at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club.

And for the second day in a row, Bhatia overcame early trouble to finish the day atop the leaderboard. This time he’s alone in front at 6 under, four shots ahead of Ricky Castillo, heading into Saturday’s final round.

Bhatia’s double bogey Friday wasn’t a penalty for an illegal use of a rangefinder, like it was Thursday. Instead, he was docked two strokes when he found the water on the par-3 second hole. He made a 5 to fall to 2 under and was suddenly three back of Thursday co-leader Ludvig Aberg, who birdied the second to reach 5 under.

Just like Thursday, Bhatia didn’t panic.

“Everyone’s gonna have a bogey or double out here,” said Bhatia, a left-hander from Wake Forest, North Carolina. “It’s just minimizing the mistakes and taking advantage of the holes you can, par 5s especially. You have to.”

Bhatia made three consecutive birdies from there to get back to 5 under, then added two more at 8 and 9 to turn in 33. He made another birdie at the par-5 15th in between bogeys at 13 and 17 as Aberg stumbled to a 75 that has him five back of the lead.

Frankie Capan is in fourth at even-par, a shot ahead of Finland’s Matias Honkala. Julian Perico, Parker Coody and Inman’s Trent Phillips are another shot back at 2 over.

Bhatia said the key to a win Saturday will be to have a goal in mind coming into the day, to visualize a score and then post it. That’s what he did in August at the Junior PGA Championship, where he shattered the tournament record with a four-round total of 22-under par.

“Everyone’s gonna be chasing me, but I feel like I’m playing really well,” he said. “And as long as I have the mental mindset going into tomorrow about winning, then I think I got it.”

Castillo and Aberg will be giving chase while playing alongside him in the day’s final grouping. Castillo, a product of Yorba Linda, California, has a game plan, too, and that’s to continue put the ball in the middle of the greens and make putts. He did that enough Friday for a second-round 70, one of few rounds under par on another difficult day at Sage Valley.

Having played in last year’s Junior Invitational, Castillo knows that over-aggressive play leads to big numbers. And he thinks that experience will come in handy, especially as he attempts to chase down first-timer Bhatia.

“Oh, definitely. I mean, especially since this is not, like, the easiest golf course,” said Castillo, who finished tied for 36th last year at 6 over. “You definitely have to know the golf course and do your work and stuff like that. Playing here last year is definitely an advantage.”

Aberg, Sweden’s top-ranked junior golfer, couldn’t get the putter going in the second round like he did in the first. He made three birdies, compared to seven Thursday, which couldn’t stand up to four bogeys plus a double on 18. He’s disappointed, but he knows he still has a shot if he plays well Saturday.

“I had a really tough day today. I actually thought my ball-striking was quite as good as yesterday,” he said. “I really got off so slow with my putter; I (three-putted), like, four times today. So that was really the key for my not-success.”

While Castillo will be following the same formula from Friday, Aberg will be trying to duplicate his effort Thursday to regain confidence in his putter. That means approaching greens the same way, giving his putts the full 360-degree read and dialing up the appropriate pace.

Their plans will be rendered moot, however, if Bhatia simply keeps doing what he’s done the last two days. He’s made six birdies each day and has been dead-on with the putter. If he can do that again, he’ll deprive the Junior Invitational of its typically-exciting finish – remember, it was only two years ago that Austin Eckroat’s five-shot lead disappeared by the time he reached the 18th green, only for him to bury a birdie at the last to win it.

“Honestly, from 3 to 11, I felt like I could have made a string of birdies there,” Bhatia said. “I was hitting it well, just seeing my lines. I’m putting really, really well; I think I only missed a putt inside of 5 feet today once. It’s gonna be fun tomorrow.”