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Thorbjornsen defeats friend Bhatia for U.S. Junior title
Michael Thorbjornsen (USGA photo)
Michael Thorbjornsen (USGA photo)

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – When you grow up on the junior-golf circuit, you tend to become close to your opponents. It’s no surprise that Michael Thorbjornsen and Akshay Bhatia’s friendship goes way back, and on Saturday, the two 16-year-olds wrote another chapter when they faced off in the final of the U.S. Junior.

Ultimately, Thorbjornsen, of Wellesley, Mass., prevailed in the scheduled 36-hole final at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Upper Course even though he trailed his friend for most of the day. In fact, Thorbjornsen’s first and only lead came at the 32nd hole. One down after the 35th hole, Bhatia conceded a 2-footer for par to give Thorbjornsen a 1-up victory and all the spoils.

The most notable among those is a start in the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

“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.

“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 hit perhaps the most memorable shot of his victory on the 32nd hole of the final match when he drove the green on the 302-yard par-4 32nd hole, 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 never gave back.

Before meeting Bhatia in the final match, Thorbjornsen had made relatively quick work out of his initial match-play opponents. He never had to play past the 16th hole in his first four matches, even though he called them a grind all the same. In the semifinals, Thorbjorsen went 21 holes against Cameron Sisk before earning his spot in the final.

It wasn’t all a joy ride this week for Thorbjornsen, however. A few days before the championship started, Thorbjornsen woke up with a 104-degree fever and was so weak that he eventually had to call an ambulance to get to the hospital.

“I was at a golf course actually at the moment,” he said. “An ambulance had to get me, and then they had to like give my IVs and everything. And then the next few days after that wasn't easy as well. I was in bed both days and I couldn't practice at all.”

Thorbjornsen traveled to Baltusrol two days after that trip to the hospital, and began to feel like himself again. By the end of the week, he had become the first Massachusetts resident to win the U.S. Junior Amateur. In addition to his U.S. Open exemption, Thorbjornsen also earns exemptions into the 2019 and 2020 U.S. Amateur.

As for Bhatia, he’ll also earn an exemption into next month’s U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, as well as a ticket to U.S. Open sectional qualifying for 2019.

“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.”

ABOUT THE U.S. Junior Amateur

While it is not the oldest competition, the U.S. Junior Amateur is considered the premier junior competition, having been around since 1948. The event is open to male golfers who have not reached their 19th birthday prior to the close of competition and whose USGA Handicap Index does not exceed 6.4. The U.S. Junior is one of 13 national championship conducted annually by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.

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