Madhav Raja had big plans for the 2020 high school season.
After solidifying himself as the top golfer in the Southeast Yosemite League, Raja, who shot a league-best average of 79 in 2019, set his sights on becoming one of the best players in Kern County as he entered his junior season at Highland this spring, a season that was ultimately lost to the coronavirus.
"My freshman and sophomore years...I was having a bit of a mental block where I couldn’t get myself to improve how I wanted," he said. "I was really working on my game and felt like I was making some real breakthroughs. I thought I was on track for something great this season, which didn't end up happening."
Luckily, the COVID-19 pandemic that ended his prep season hasn't completely prevented Raja from from showing off his improved game, which he's been able to do against some of the best amateur talent in the state.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Raja took part in a Qualifying School Tournament at the Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon in Beaumont last December. A top-16 performance there would secure him a spot on the Toyota Tour Cup, a premier, invitation-only series of events for top junior golfers in Southern California.
Circumstances weren't exactly ideal, with Raja and the field forced to play through rain and winds that regularly exceeded 30 miles per hour. This contributed to one rough stretch where he bogeyed six of seven holes, and eventually found himself outside the top-16 with a disappointing score of 79.
Though initially discouraged, Raja remained within striking distance of a qualifying spot and knew he had to quickly get over a performance he deemed unsatisfactory.
"I had to grind it out a little bit and just had to say 'I still have a chance,'" he said. "I didn't like how I played (but) I didn't count myself out."
The pep talk seemed to do the trick. Raja improved by three strokes on day two to narrowly nab one of the final qualifying spots, finishing in a six-way tie for 16th with a score of 155 (+11).
Playing in much nicer conditions, Raja elevated his performance in his first Toyota Cup event of 2020 earlier this week.
Though his overall ranking (tied for 37th) was much lower than his Q-School finish, Raja was far more consistent at the Southern California PGA Junior Tour event at Encinitas Ranch on July 20-21. He birdied four holes and shot an even-par 72 on day one, then shot a 73 on the second day.
Raja left Encinitas mostly happy with his performance, but did express displeasure with his putting, saying it cost him a shot at a much higher finish.
“If this one small aspect of my game was just halfway ok, I’d have finished in the top-10 and not where I was," he said.
Highland head coach Allan Smart believes playing at a smaller school prevents Raja from being seen by college recruiters as often his peers in the Southwest Yosemite League, and says these tournaments can go a long way towards boosting his profile.
"That's where the colleges are going to look," Smart said. "They're going to be looking at those junior tournament, so they are extremely beneficial for him. As long as he can put together a really consistent scoring career in this next year, I believe there are plenty of schools that will give him an opportunity. I can’t tell you they’d be Division I’s (because) those schools only take so many kids. But I believe he will see some type of school pick him up."
Raja will get a chance to show how he stacks up against some of the top local amateur talent this weekend, when he takes part in the 41st Annual Bakersfield City Championship at the Sundale Country Club. He will be one of roughly 60 competitors to take part in the tournament's championship flight.
Having missed out on the opportunity to play against them during the high school season, Raja is eager to go head-to-head with golfers from schools like Liberty, Garces and Stockdale.
“You get to go out with all the local guys and see where you stand," he said. "You also get some type of respect locally throughout Bakersfield and that could open up opportunities for you. Being able to compete with these guys shows me my game is on track.”
If he can fix the putting issues that hurt his finish at the Toyota Cup, he has ambitions far greater than merely being competitive.
"If I can get that dialed in, I'm going to win the tournament," he said.
The championship flight of the Bakersfield City Championship tees off at 6:15 a.m. on Saturday, with the president's flight coming immediately after. The president's flight tees off at 6:15 a.m. on Sunday, with the championship flight starting after.
Sundale head pro Dave Bolar estimates roughly 90 total golfers will compete over the two flights.