BOSTON, Mass – Michael Thorbjornsen already had a challenge on his hands in facing Akshay Bhatia, the top-ranked high school golfer in the country, in the final of the U.S. Junior Amateur on Saturday. Needless to say, spotting Bhatia three holes over the first six holes of the scheduled 36-hole championship match wasn’t part of the original plan for the 16-year-old from Wellesley, Mass.
Playing in the biggest tournament of his young career Michael Thorbjornsen rose to the occasion by rallying to win the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur on Saturday July 21, beating fellow 16-year-old Akshay Bhatia 1-up at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Upper Course in Springfield, New Jersey.
“I feel like this is probably the biggest junior event you can win, and I somehow managed to win it,” Thorbjornsen said. “It just feels amazing because I haven’t won a tournament in around just over a year, so this is the perfect tournament for me to win.”
Thorbjornsen hung tough, eventually squaring the match on the Upper Course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., after 24 holes, and then taking the lead for good with a birdie on the 32nd hole to eventually pull off the upset victory, 1 up.
He birdied the par-4 30th hole — after his drive hit a tree and landed in the fairway — to square the match. He took the lead for the first time on the par-4 32nd, driving the 302-yard hole and two-putting for birdie.
“I was really feeling confident at that time with a nice little fade,” Thorbjornsen said. “Just because if I hit a regular drive up 14, I’m pretty sure would’ve gone long — and long on that hole is absolutely dead.”
On the par-4 closing hole, he lagged a 42-foot birdie putt to two-feet to set up the winning par. Bhatia, from Wake Forest, North Carolina, missed a tying 4-foot birdie putt on the par-5 35th hole. On the 36th, he missed a 45-foot birdie try from the front fringe, giving Thorbjornsen the victory.
Coming with the title are a two bucket-list type perks. Thorbjornsen, a high school junior, gets an exemption into next month’s U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, and then will get the chance to return to the course next June and play in the U.S. Open.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of stuff hasn’t really sunk in yet, like the U.S. Am definitely, as well as the U.S. Open,” Thorbjornsen said. “But right when Akshay took off his hat and I realized it was over and I actually had won, I didn’t know like what to do with my hands, with my hat. I didn’t know where to go. I was just smiling from ear to ear, so I was just really happy.”
“It feels amazing,” Thorbjornsen said. “Personally, for myself I feel like this is probably the biggest junior event you can win and I somehow managed to win it. It just feels amazing because I haven’t won a tournament in around just over a year now, so this is the perfect tournament for me to win.”
That Thorbjornsen even managed to play in the championship was a story in perseverance. A few days ahead of the event, he got sick, recording a 104-degree fever that necessitated a visit to the hospital.
“I couldn’t stand up,” he said. “The ambulance had to get me. I was at a golf course actually at the moment. An ambulance had to get me, and then they had to like give my IVs and everything.”
He arrived in New Jersey a day later than expected and was still taking antibiotics early in the stroke-play portion of the event. And yet he earned the No. 7 seed with rounds of 70-67.
The equivalent of five over on his morning 18, Thorbjornsen tightened up his ball-striking in the afternoon to play the second 18 in the equivalent of two under, including a birdie on the 30th hole that squared the match and another on the 32nd to give him the lead for good. He then halved the final four holes with pars to seal the victory.
“I played great for a lot of holes; he just played a little better,” Bhatia said. “I had a couple of opportunities to square the match and I didn’t execute it. But I’m really happy that Michael won. He really deserved it. He played great golf. He stayed very patient and very confident the whole match.”
Thorbjornsen can add this victory to his own impressive resume, which includes a victory at the Drive, Chip and Putt National final at Augusta National in 2016.
“This is by far the biggest win I’ve had, and just everything that comes along with it is above everything else,” Thorbjornsen said. “Just the rush of emotion and just the thrill of it, just like realizing when I won far exceeds every other tournament I’ve played in and won. It’s really something special.”
(Material from the U.S.G.A. was used in this report.)