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Akshay Bhatia starts the Texas Open with a 63-stroke game to lead by 3. Rory McIlroy is 6 strokes behind

SAN ANTONIO — Akshay Bhatia rode the rare experience of knowing a PGA Tour course with a sublime day with his irons for a 9-under-par 63 on Thursday, giving him a three-shot lead in the Valero Texas Open and taking

Akshay Bhatia used his familiarity with a PGA Tour course and skill with his irons to shoot a 9-under-par 63 on Thursday, putting him three shots ahead in the Valero Texas Open and potentially earning him a spot in the Masters.

The Texas Open is the final chance for players to qualify for the Augusta National by winning. Last summer, 22-year-old Bhatia won the Barracuda Championship, but it did not count toward a Masters invitation because it was held at the same time as the British Open.

But Bhatia is not focused on that possibility at the moment.

Bhatia downplayed his lead, saying, “It doesn’t matter to me. I'm looking forward to getting some rest after a long and hot day. I'm just trying to follow the advice of my mental coach and not aiming to win the golf tournament today. But it's certainly nice to have a good day.

Local player Brendon Todd finished with a 66, including birdies on four of his last five holes, tying with Justin Lower. Both are not yet qualified for the Masters.

Rory McIlroy, who recently visited his swing coach and Augusta National, had a decent day. He played without any bogeys but only managed three birdies, missing birdie opportunities on the back nine at the TPC San Antonio.

McIlroy commented, “I believe it’s been quite a while since I had a round without a bogey. My game has been unstable in the last couple of months, so I'm quite content with today's solid round in pretty challenging conditions.

Jordan Spieth had an eventful performance, encountering difficulties on the 14th hole but then making a hole-in-one on the next hole. He eventually finished with a 73.

Spieth expressed frustration, saying, “I'm playing much better than my scores reflect, and it's difficult to understand. I've played much worse and still achieved consecutive top 10s than the missed cuts I've had. It's very strange.

He added, “I received some fortunate breaks later on, which made me feel like the game isn't as challenging as it has seemed.”

Max Homa and Cognizant Classic winner Austin Eckroat both finished with a 68.

This is Bhatia’s second year on tour. He played a combination of Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour events before securing his card, but he has participated in the Texas Open twice before.

Bhatia said, “This is my third time here. Not many golf courses on the tour have been my third time. I played really consistently. It was a great day.

Only two of his nine birdies were from a distance of over 10 feet—both were around 15 feet. He ended his round by hitting from a greenside bunker to a tap-in distance on the 18th hole.

Akshay Bhatia’s familiarity with the PGA Tour course and skill with his irons helped him achieve a 9-under-par 63 on Thursday, giving him a three-shot lead in the Valero Texas Open and bringing him one step closer to the Masters.

Only two of his nine birdies were outside 10 feet — both were in the 15-foot range — and he finished his round with a greenside bunker shot to tap-in range on the 18th.

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