As Michael Thorbjornsen’s semifinal match against Cameron Sisk wore on and continued into extra holes on Friday, a friendly face in his corner appeared in the gallery. It was Akshay Bhatia, who has known Thorbjornsen for years through the junior golf circuit and had come out to see if his close friend could pull through. He did, and it meant the two would be squaring off in Saturday’s 36-hole final on Baltusrol Golf Club’s Upper Course.
Fast forward to late Saturday afternoon. Thorbjornsen, who trailed Bhatia for most of their match before pulling ahead for the first and only time on the 32nd hole, struck a 42-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole to inside of 2 feet, and Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., conceded and congratulated his close friend on his 1-up victory in the 71st U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
“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.”
Before his 21-hole affair with Sisk, the 16-year-old from Wellesley, Mass., had, by and large, made easy work of his opponents as he advanced through the match-play bracket, as his first four matches all ended before the 17th hole. It was clear in the early going on Saturday that this wasn’t going to be one of those matches. His tee shot on the first hole of the day ended up under the lip of the right fairway bunker, leading to a bogey to start the day and a quick deficit. Another bogey after his approach shot on the par-4 fourth hole put him 2 down, and he three-putted from 10 feet on No. 6 to go 3 down.
Thorbjornsen trailed by 2 down through 18 holes, and after the match resumed at 12:30 p.m., things started to tighten up. On the 21st hole, Bhatia saw a 15-foot par putt lip out to have his lead trimmed to 1 up. After matching Bhatia’s birdie putt on No. 22 with one of his own, Thorbjornsen squared things up on the following hole, when he stuck his approach shot from 130 yards to 7 feet and buried the putt. After Bhatia, also 16, briefly retook the lead on the 29th hole, Thorbjornsen took advantage of a big break when his tee shot on the 30th hole, which was headed well left, hit a tree and dropped in the fairway. He proceeded to hit his approach shot to 12 feet and convert the putt to square the match yet again.
It was on the 32nd hole when Thorbjornsen hit perhaps the most memorable shot of his victory, 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 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.
2018 U.S. Junior Amateur Quarterfinalists
Akshay Bhatia, 16, of Wake Forest, N.C.
- Born Jan. 31, 2002 in Los Angeles, Calif.
- No. 95 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 12 seed with rounds of 66-72 in stroke play
- Defeated No. 5 seed Yuki Moriyama, 1 up, in the Round of 16
- Reached the Round of 64 in the 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur
- Advanced to match play with partner Grayson Wotnosky in 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball
- Won 2018 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley by one stroke over 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball co-champion Frankie Capan
- Captured 2018 Polo Golf Junior Classic at Echo Lake, in Westfield, N.J., by 10 strokes
- Won 2017 Boys Junior PGA with a record 22-under par, which included a second-round 61
- His sister Rhea is a rising senior on the Queens University of Charlotte golf team
Cole Hammer, 18, of Houston, Texas
- Born Aug. 28, 1999 in Houston, Texas
- No. 41 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 8 seed with rounds of 69-68 in stroke play
- Rallied to defeat Trent Phillips in 19 holes in the Round of 16
- Advanced to match play in four consecutive U.S. Junior Amateurs, including this year’s quarterfinals and the Round of 16 in 2016 and 2017
- Won 2018 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship with partner Garrett Barber
- Competed in eight USGA championships and was the third-youngest (age 15) to compete in the U.S. Open when he played at Chambers Bay in 2015
- Won 2018 Azalea Invitational when he defeated Hugo Bernard and Joseph Pagdin in a playoff
- Tied for fourth in Sahalee Players Championship on July 4
- Will attend the University of Texas in the fall
Joe Highsmith, 18, of Lakewood, Wash.
- Born April 19, 2000 in Lakewood, Wash.
- No. 235 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 18 seed with rounds of 73-69 in stroke play
- Defeated No. 2 seed Ricky Castillo, 5 and 3, in the Round of 16 and 2018 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball co-champion Garrett Barber, 3 and 2, in the Round of 32
- Advanced to match play in four consecutive U.S. Junior Amateurs, including this year’s quarterfinals and the Round of 32 in 2016 and 2017
- Youngest player (age 17) to win the WSGA State Amateur when he posted a 54-hole score of 9-under 205 in 2017
- Claimed the 2017 WIAA Class 4A state championship and helped Bellarmine Prep win its third consecutive state crown
- Represented the United States in the 2017 Junior Presidents Cup
- Chosen 2016 WSGA Junior Boys player of the year
- Will attend Pepperdine University in the fall
Alejandro Madariaga, 17, of Mexico
- Born July 31, 2000 in Mexico City
- No. 1,295 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 29 seed with rounds of 70-73 in stroke play
- Defeated No. 4 seed Joseph Pagdin, 2 and 1, in the Round of 32 and No. 13 seed James Song, 5 and 4, in the Round of 16
- Competing in his first USGA championship
- Posted five top-10 finishes this year, including a tie for fifth in the Under Armour/Jordan Spieth Championship on June 18
- Tied for 15th in the IMG Academy Junior World Championship at Torrey Pines G.C. on July 13
- Runner-up in the 2017 Doral-Publix Junior Classic when he lost in a playoff to Petr Hruby
- His lowest competitive round was a 66 at El Paraiso Country Club in 2016
Thomas Ponder, 17, of Dothan, Ala.
- Born Jan. 12, 2001 in Dothan, Ala.
- No. 3,178 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 30 seed with rounds of 72-71 in stroke play
- Defeated No. 3 seed Karl Vilips, 3 and 1, in the Round of 32 and Connor Creasy, 1 up, in the Round of 16
- Competing in his second U.S. Junior Amateur after failing to qualify for match play in 2017
- Finished 16th in 2018 Alabama State Amateur following a final-round 66 at Pine Tree Country Club in Birmingham
- Runner-up in the Press Thornton Future Masters after losing a playoff to Hal Dove on June 30
- Won the 2018 AHSAA Boys 3A state championship by one stroke with a 36-hole score of 5-under 139 and helped Providence Christian School place second
- Tied for 27th at 2017 Jones Cup Junior Invitational
- Completed black belt in ATA karate at age 8
Cameron Sisk, 18, of El Cajon, Calif.
- Born April 4, 2000 in San Diego, Calif.
- No. 490 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 11 seed with rounds of 68-70 in stroke play
- Defeated Tommy Stephenson, 4 and 3, in the Round of 16
- Advanced to the Round of 64 in last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur
- Shot final-round 64, his lowest competitive round, to finish third in the 2018 Heather Farr Classic
- Tied for 10th in Thunderbird International Junior on May 28
- 2017 AJGA Rolex All-American and chosen to the All-Southern California Junior Team
- Member of the AJGA Wyndham Cup West Team
- Has a twin brother, Parker, and enjoys mountain biking
- Will attend Arizona State University in the fall
Michael Thorbjornsen, 16, of Wellesley, Mass.
- Born Sept. 16, 2001 in Cleveland, Ohio
- No. 211 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 7 seed with rounds of 70-67 in stroke play
- Defeated 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur quarterfinalist Ryan Smith, 3 and 2, in the Round of 16
- Competing in his first USGA championship
- Seventh in Wyndham Invitational, including 67-66 finish, and tied for seventh in the AJGA Simplify Boys Championship
- Posted six top-10 finishes last year, including runner-up in AJGA Junior at Blue Hill and a tie for fifth in Rolex Tournament of Champions where he shot a 64, his lowest competitive round
- Member of the 2018 AJGA Wyndham Cup East Team
- Won 2016 Drive, Chip & Putt National Final (ages 14-15) at Augusta National Golf Club
- 2012 and 2013 U.S. Kids Golf National Player of the Year
Shuai Ming (Ben) Wong, 18, of Hong Kong China
- Born Nov. 14, 1999 in Hong Kong China
- No. 155 in World Amateur Golf Ranking™
- Earned No. 16 seed with rounds of 69-72 in stroke play
- Defeated Jacob Bridgeman, 7 and 6, in the Round of 16 and Jolo Timothy Magcalayo in 19 holes in the Round of 32
- Eighth player to compete in five U.S. Junior Amateurs, joining a group that includes eight-time USGA champion Jack Nicklaus
- Advanced to the U.S. Junior Amateur quarterfinals for the first time
- Had reached match play in two of his previous four U.S. Junior Amateurs
- Won 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship with partner Frankie Capan
- Will be teammates with 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Noah Goodwin at Southern Methodist University (SMU)
- Born in Hong Kong, China, but moved to Beijing, in China, at age 6
*Featured Image: Thorbjornsen celebrated his victory on Saturday with his sister, Teresa, and mother, Sandra. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
* Article by USGA