Bhatia stretches lead to 5 at windy Texas Open


SAN ANTONIO — Akshay Bhatia survived a rocky start Friday in the Valero Texas Open by rallying with a pair of late birdies for a 2-under 70 that stretched his lead to 5 shots and raised hopes of getting the final spot in the Masters next week.

Bhatia started with a 3-shot lead and opened with a 15-foot birdie putt, perhaps a sign that this might be another easy day. Far from it.

He made bogey from the bunker on the next hole. He three-putted for bogey from long range. He failed to birdie the par-5s on the back nine. He no longer had the lead.

But the 22-year-old settled himself with birdies on the par-5s on the front nine at the TPC San Antonio, and a birdie on the par-3 eighth. The wind kept whipping, challengers kept dropping and he wound up expanding his lead.

Bhatia was at 11-under 133. Denny McCarthy, who played in the afternoon, got within 4 shots of him until a bogey from the fairway on the par-5 18th for a 70. That dropped him to 6-under 138, along with Brendon Todd (72) and Russell Henley (69).

“It was stressful, for sure, wasn’t my best stuff,” Bhatia said. “I felt like I struggled a lot off the tee today, golf swing didn’t feel great with any of the longer stuff, but iron play was still phenomenal, wedges were good, made some nice putts.

“It was good to get the under-par round.”

Rory McIlroy had another steady day of pars and did well enough for a 70 to stay in the mix at 139.

McIlroy, in his final event before he tries again to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National, has made three birdies in each of the opening two rounds. His lone bogey was on the seventh hole, his 16th of the round, when he missed a 5-foot putt.

“I could stand here and say I wish I was a few shots better and missed a few putts and whatever, but it was tricky conditions,” McIlroy said. “Akshay is playing really well, but apart from that, no one’s really lighting the world on fire. Just keep grinding away.

“I’ve only made one bogey over two days, which I’m really pleased with,” he said. “Would have been nice to make a few more birdies, but pretty happy with the last two days.”

Bhatia won the Barracuda Championship last summer, but it was played the same week as the British Open and it did not get him into the Masters. Augusta National is holding one spot for the winner of the Texas Open.

Tommy Fleetwood (69), Webb Simpson (67) and Monday qualifier Peter Kuest (71) were among those at 140. Of the top nine players, only Bhatia, Todd, Simpson and Kuest are not already in the field for the Masters.

Jordan Spieth is a past Masters champion, and he won’t have to leave early for Augusta. Spieth, who has missed his past two cuts, rallied with a 68 to not only make the cut but move into a tie for 10th, 8 shots behind Bhatia.

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