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Akshay Bhatia’s status explained: Special Temporary Membership

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Tour Insider

Bhatia, 21, accepts PGA TOUR Special Temporary Membership at Valspar Championship

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Ten minutes before he began the final round of the Puerto Rico Open, Akshay Bhatia chatted with his mental coach, Dr. Greg Cartin. The duo began working together during the 2020 pandemic hiatus; Bhatia credits their work as a large part of his rise in form after early struggles in his professional career.

    Bhatia, 21, was on the verge of securing PGA TOUR Special Temporary Membership with a strong Sunday in Puerto Rico, and Cartin had some timely advice.

    “A big thing for me is creating stories in my head,” Bhatia said. “‘What could happen? What if I play bad?’ and he was like, ‘You’re going to create stories, and that’s fine. It’s OK if it happens. But realizing that, and getting back to the reality of trying to hit this golf shot, is the biggest thing.’ And I really tried to own that.

    “Sometimes you can get in your head, and I told my caddie, ‘I’m excited today; it’s going to be a fun, hard challenging round, and I’m up for it.’”

    Mission accomplished. Bhatia carded a final-round 65, including a mind-bending birdie from a fairway bunker on No. 17, to finish solo second, two strokes behind Nicolas Echavarria. The result pushed Bhatia across the threshold of non-member FedExCup points (175.228; No. 150 in 2022) to earn PGA TOUR Special Temporary Membership. Bhatia accepted this membership Tuesday at the Valspar Championship.

    “Since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to be on the PGA TOUR, and dreamed about being the best player in the world,” Bhatia said at the Valspar, the site of his TOUR debut as an amateur in 2019. “And now I have the opportunity to do it.”

    Bhatia now turns his attention the current year’s FedExCup points race. The first focal point: earning enough non-member FedExCup points to equal or surpass No. 125 on the official FedExCup Playoffs and Eligibility Points List upon the conclusion of the 2023 TOUR season, extending through the schedule’s fall portion. This would ensure exempt TOUR status in 2024, not subject to periodic reshuffles.

    Now let’s unpack the term “Special Temporary Membership.”

    First off, Bhatia can accept unlimited sponsor exemptions through the remainder of the 2023 PGA TOUR calendar, including the fall portion. Non-members can only accept up to seven sponsor exemptions in a single TOUR season.

    By securing Special Temporary Membership, Bhatia also earns a spot in a conditional category on the 2023 TOUR Priority Ranking. This category reshuffles a combination of TOUR members including past champions (beyond their exemption) and veteran members (150 or more career cuts made). The next reshuffle will occur on the Monday after the Valero Texas Open, and Bhatia will move near the top of this category at that time.

    For reference, the field for the Valspar Championship cut off just before the category into which Bhatia will shuffle (as of Wednesday afternoon).

    As he met the media Tuesday at the Valspar Championship, Bhatia harkened back to the case of Will Zalatoris, who clinched TOUR Special Temporary Membership in fall 2020, midway through the combined 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour season. Zalatoris led the Korn Ferry Tour season-long standings upon earning Special Temporary Membership at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship that November, and he didn’t look back. Zalatoris played a mostly full TOUR schedule on a combination of top-10 finishes, exemptions through his spot on the Official World Golf Ranking and sponsor exemptions. His season memorably included a runner-up at the 2021 Masters, and he recorded 14 top-25 finishes in 25 starts.

    Zalatoris did not qualify for the 2021 FedExCup Playoffs, though, illustrating an important point of reference. There is just one avenue for special temporary members to earn a spot in that season’s FedExCup Playoffs: winning a TOUR event. Full membership, barring a victory, does not activate until the following season.

    Others currently chasing Special Temporary Membership this season include Cole Hammer and Ryan Gerard – both in the Valspar Championship on sponsor exemptions.

    Hammer has accrued 129.17 non-member FedExCup points this season, and he stands 46.058 points shy of the Special Temporary Membership threshold, needing a solo 19th or better at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course.

    Gerard holds 169 non-member FedExCup points, via a solo fourth at The Honda Classic and a T11 at the Puerto Rico Open. He is 6.228 points shy of crossing the threshold, needing a two-way T54 or better at the Valspar.

    He’s not shying away from the magnitude of the situation.

    “Try to make something special happen,” Gerard said Tuesday. “It’s always been a dream of mine, just to get to the PGA TOUR and be a TOUR member. I feel like I’m really close. It’s exciting, but I know there’s still work left to do.

    “I’m really just trying to harness the momentum and confidence that I have, but understand that these guys are really good and I need to play solid. When I do get there, it’s going to be amazing.”

    Bhatia is there. He can attest, it’s amazing. But even once Special Temporary Membership is solidified, Gerard’s sentiments remain true. There’s still work left to do.

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.