BY ROBERT GAUTNEY
Contributing golf columnist
Bhavik Patel is leaving Feb. 17 for a trip to South America to play golf. Patel has taken many trips to play golf over the past four to five years, only this time, the most decorated amateur golfer in Kern County's history won't be going for fun, or even as an amateur.
It's all business.
Patel, 22, whose amateur resume includes a California State Amateur title, an SCGA Amateur title and a run to the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Amateur, will be making the trip to compete in the first tournament of the 2013 year on the Web.com Tour as a professional golfer.
Patel earned the right to play on the Web.com Tour by placing equal 49th at the PGA Tour's Final Stage Qualifying in December. That came after he made it through three preliminary rounds of qualifying. He missed out on a chance to compete on the PGA Tour by a mere four shots (top 25 and ties) after the grueling six round finals in La Quinta, shooting an even-par 72 in the final round. That near miss fuels a fire in the former Bakersfield High and Fresno State star.
"I took a couple of weeks off (after Q-School)," said Patel. "My wrist was a little sore and I needed a break from the grind of Q-School. That was the most stress I had ever had playing golf. But I'm ready for the (Web.com) tour to start. It will be a grind all year, but I'm going to find out a lot about my game and myself."
Since the first of the year, Patel has been preparing for the Web.com Tour by weight training, practicing and playing. He will get his first crack at earning a paycheck as a professional Feb.21-24 when he competes in the Panama Claro Championship in Panama City. Then it's on to the Columbia Championship in Bogota the following week, then to the Chile Classic in Santiago. The tour doesn't have a California site this year and the closest event will be the Boise Open in July or perhaps the Mexican Championship in Leon. There are a total of 25 events.
"That will be a new experience," Patel said of playing in South America, "but I've got a good caddy that I have built a trust with and that's important."
That caddy is Mike Karlberg, 32, a former pro mini-tour player himself.
"We hooked up in Palm Springs and we developed a good player-caddy relationship," says Patel. "He has been caddying in the Palm Springs area and at professional events for about six years, so he will be a big help."
The top 50 in earnings after the Web.com Tour Championship at the end of September in Florida will determine who earns a PGA Tour playing card for 2014. Patel's goal is to make it to the PGA Tour as quickly as possible, but he is quick to point out that you can't look too far ahead.
"Make the top 50, that's the goal," says Patel for his 2013 year. "But obviously the higher you finish towards No.1, the more PGA Tour events you will be exempt for the following year. It's a cliche, but I can't look forward."
Patel was also quick to point out the change from high school to college golf, then from college golf to professional golf.
"It was a big jump in competition from high school to college and it will even be a bigger jump from college to the Web.com Tour," says Patel. "In high school and college you are not only playing for yourself but your teammates too. You don't want to let them down. As a pro, it's all about you. You don't play well, you don't earn a paycheck for the week. And just starting out, it will be important to make some cuts, earn some money and get my feet wet."
It may be the "minor league" to the PGA Tour, but Patel points out that there isn't that much difference between players on the Web.com Tour and the PGA Tour.
"There are players on the Web.com Tour playing this year who have won on the PGA Tour and there will be plenty of guys in the future who will win on the PGA Tour," points out Patel. "Sometimes people who don't really know too much about it overlook that fact, but the talent is going to be pretty good out there."
While Patel will be trying to make cuts and earn a paycheck week to week, he won't have to worry about his equipment or his apparel. He signed contracts with both Taylor Made and Adidas.
"Taylor Made is taking care of my equipment like clubs, balls, gloves, hats, etc. while Adidas is providing my clothes and shoes," says Patel. "I have a couple of other things going too."
And what about the expense of traveling? "I'm covered for a while, but hopefully I can earn some money right away and I won't have to count on anyone," says Patel. "But should that happen, there are people here (Bakersfield) who are ready to help. I don't want to have to rely on that, but it's good to know it's there if I need it."
Right now, the only thing Patel needs is to get on a plane to South America and start what he hopes will be a long career as a professional golfer. Patel says he can't wait and added, "It's a business and I want my business to be successful."
BC Golfers 4th and 7th in first 2 events
The Bakersfield College men's golf team has finished 4th and 7th in its first two tournaments of the year.
The Renegades shot 781 to place 4th at the Double-Eagle Invitational at Seven Oaks CC and Bakersfield CC last week and shot 397 in the one round Stanford Tournament this week.
Neil Bautista placed third in the Double-Eagle with rounds of 72 and 76 and was equal second with a 72 in the Stanford event.
Other BC players have included Travis Millwee, Paul Cooper, Kevin Antongiovanni, Zach Casberg and P.J. Carmichael.
BC plays this Monday at Valencia CC in its first Western State Conference match.
The Vernon Valenzuela Memorial Foundation "Commit to Life Golf Tournament" will be April 15 at Rio Bravo CC. To get information go to vvmemorialfoundation.org.