SPRINGFIELD, NJ - Find a way. Just find a way to grind and maybe an opportunity will present itself.
16-year-old and seventh-seed Michael Thorbjornsen of Wellesley, Mass. did just that on Saturday afternoon as he edged fellow 16-year-old and good friend 12th-seeded Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest, North Carolina, 1 up, to capture the 71st annual USGA U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Baltusrol Golf Course’s Upper Course in Springfield.
Trailing most of the 36-hole match, Thorbjornsen got his first opportunity on the par 4, 361-yard 12th hole (30th of the match) when he birdied to bring the match to all-square with six holes remaining and then took the lead for good on the par 4, 302-yard 14th hole (32nd of match) with his second birdie to move in front for the first and final time during the day at 1-up.
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Thorbjornsen hit perhaps the most memorable shot of his victory on that hole when he drove the green, leaving himself 24 feet for eagle. The putt, which broke hard left-to-right, just stayed out, but it was good enough for a conceded birdie and his first lead of the match, which he did not relinquish. Bhatia had a 4-foot putt for birdie on the 35th hole that would have squared the match, but couldn’t convert. His 45-foot birdie try from the front fringe on the 36th hole didn’t go, opening the door for Thorbjornsen to cozy his putt up to concession range and clinch the title.
“It feels amazing. Personally for myself I feel like this is probably the biggest junior event you can win and I somehow managed to win it,” said Thorbjornsen, who, with the victory, earned a spot in the 119th U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. “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.”
Thorbjornsen, who won the 2016 Drive, Chip & Putt National Final (ages 14-15) at Augusta National Golf Club, was competing in his first USGA Championship and by virtue of their semifinal victories on Friday, Thorbjornsen and Bhatia earned spots in the 2018 U.S. Amateur, to also be played at Pebble Beach in three weeks, Aug. 13-19. Bhatia had already qualified for the championship via sectional qualifying, while Thorbjornsen had not previously entered.
Bhatia, who last month captured the 2018 AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield (just 2.7 miles from Baltusrol) by a whopping 10 strokes, also played brillian golf throughout the whole week, having improved drastically his round of 64 appearance in the U.S. Junior Amateur a year ago.
“I played great for a lot of holes; he just played a little better. 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,” said Bhatia. “Everything about this week was pretty memorable. First off, being in the finals and having crowds and cameras all over you, it's something new. I think that was pretty cool to experience.”
Over the course of 36 holes Saturday, Thorbjornsen won nine holes, Bhatia won eight, and 19 holes were halved. With the usual match-play concessions, both Bhatia and Thorbjornsen recorded 36-hole scores of 2-over 144. Bhatia shot rounds of 72-72, while Thorbjornsen shot 75-69.
Baltusrol Bits: The 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur will be played at Inverness Club, in Toledo, Ohio, July 15-20. It will be the eighth USGA championship held at Inverness, and the first U.S. Junior Amateur. … In addition to his U.S. Open exemption, Thorbjornsen also earns exemptions into the 2019 and 2020 U.S. Amateur. Bhatia earned an exemption into U.S. Open sectional qualifying in 2019. They are both exempt into the U.S. Junior Amateur for as long as they are age-eligible. … Thorbjornsen is the first Massachusetts resident to win the U.S. Junior Amateur. Brett Quigley, the 1987 champion who served as an on-course analyst for the Junior Amateur this week for Fox Sports, was born in the Bay State, but grew up in neighboring Rhode Island. … All match play rounds were held on Baltusrol’s Upper Course, so Thorbjornsen joins Tony Manero (1936 U.S. Open), Kathy (Baker) Guadagnino (1985 U.S. Women’s Open) and Jeff Quinney (2000 U.S. Amateur) as players to win on the Upper.