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On his third night of owning the lead in the Valero Texas Open, Akshay Bhatia had trouble sleeping. His mind raced.

He needed to settle down. He needed to set a goal. He arrived at this: 4-under par on Sunday. That would get him to 19-under for a tournament he had led since his opening-round 63. Nineteen-under, he thought, would be tough to beat. And it would likely get him into the Masters.

As it turns out, it would’ve lost. Denny McCarthy put on a dazzling display of putting on the back nine as Bhatia stacked one quality shot on top of another. Bhatia shot 67. McCarthy shot 63. They finished at 20-under par, nine distant shots from their nearest chaser.

One of them had to win. Bhatia, the improviser and innovator, was that player.

It never looked easy. It wasn’t. Bhatia did what he thought he needed to do, but the back-nine rally from McCarthy was a wildcard. It put him on edge.

“I felt so uncomfortable all day today,” said Bhatia, a creative shot-shaper who works just about every ball he hits. “I got off to a great start and kind of just tried to stick as much as I could to my game plan. But when you see someone charging at you and you’re playing with him, it’s really hard because you feel like you’re just slipping away.”

Bhatia opened his final round with two statement-making birdies, stretching his lead to six. He parred the third, then dripped a 6-foot birdie putt into the heart of the hole at the fourth. Bhatia was 18-under par. He was unflappably locked into his task. Only McCarthy, at 12-under, held the dimmest hope of catching him.

It looked like nothing would matter. The lead felt too great. So did the player who held it.

Bhatia simply never let the stakes crush his focus. He shot a 5-under 67 with the lead and his first Masters invitation in the offing. He flinched once, on the par-4 10th, missing a 6-foot par putt for his only bogey of the round. But he steadied on the par-4 11th with his fourth birdie of the round.

“I knew it was a two-man race,” Bhatia said

Then came the flurry. McCarthy birdied all the way home — eight straight from the 12th hole through the 18th, each hole chipping away at a lead that was six at the turn. After Bhatia missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the low side, he and McCarthy left the 17th green tied.

“The putts he made,” Bhatia said, “I mean, that guy has some guts, and he’s going to win a lot of times out here.”

Bhatia and McCarthy birdied the 18th in regulation with 12-foot putts. Both drew the loudest roars of the day.

Both players laid up on the first and only sudden-death playoff hole. Then McCarthy inexplicably dumped his 99-yard wedge shot into the creek that runs along the 18th green. His fifth shot skipped long. Bhatia pitched to 6 feet from 84 yards.

“Let’s go,” Bhatia told himself over the putt to win. “This is kind of your moment.”

He rose to it. When the ball fell, he looked to the sky.

It was Bhatia’s second PGA TOUR victory, but his first in a 72-hole stroke-play start. He won the 2023 Barracuda Championship, an event with a Modified Stableford scoring format held as an Additional Event during The Open Championship. In some respects, his victory at the Valero felt like an affirmation.

“It was just incredible to be able to be in this position,” Bhatia said.

He reminded himself of his good fortune on the cart ride to the tee for the playoff. Four swings later, he’d won 500 FedExCup points and an invitation to Augusta National, where a decade ago he played in the first Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals.

“My mom’s birthday was on April 1, and her wish was to get into the Masters,” Bhatia said. “So I hope I make her proud.”

It wasn’t just her. Bhatia’s fiancé, Presleigh Schultz, met him on the green for a long, tight embrace. It was fitting that Bhatia won the Valero Texas Open, of all tournaments on the schedule. He and Schultz, who’s from Mississippi, met there in 2021. Bhatia messaged her on Instagram when she was a student at Texas A&M. He told her he was playing a golf tournament in San Antonio and invited her to meet him there. She’d never been to a golf tournament before. She went, changing her life and his.

“He believes in himself more than anyone,” said Schultz, who also noted that Bhatia had been telling her all year that they’d be going to the Masters. Even this week.

“I had no doubt,” she said.

There is none now.