(Springfield, N.J.) - When Michael Thorbjornsen’s first met Akshay Bhatia, he was on top of the world, in a way. The 16-year-old from Wellesley, Mass., met his U.S. Junior Amateur championship match opponent at the U.S. Kids World Championships, which he won in 2012 and 2013. On Saturday, Bhatia will be the last hurdle for Thorbjornsen to leap in his quest to conquer the ultimate test in junior golf.
Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., never trailed on Friday, winning a tight match in the Quarterfinals over Alejandro Madariaga, 1 up, before jumping out to a 3-up lead through nine holes over Cole Hammer on his way to winning their semifinal match, 4 and 2.
Bhatia drove the 280-yard, par-4 ninth hole on his way to winning the hole with a birdie and then dazzled with his iron play, hitting his approach shot on No. 12 to 6 feet before converting the birdie putt, and then closing out the match on No. 16 with a wedge from 136 yards to about two feet. The 16-year-old, who lost in the Round of 64 in his U.S. Junior Amateur debut last year, is excited to be playing Saturday’s final, and knows how difficult it was to beat Hammer, who is No. 41 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
“I love this golf course. I mean, you have to shape shots, you have to put in the correct spots; you have to make a lot of putts out here,” said Bhatia. “Every time you beat someone it boosts your confidence, especially someone who has done such great things this year and over the past couple of years.”
The odds were starting to look long for Thorbjornsen against Sisk, of El Cajon, Calif., who will play for Arizona State University this fall. He was 2 down after a bogey on No. 12, but was able to square the match on the par-3 15th when he hit his tee shot to about 10 feet and Sisk ended up conceding the hole after missing a lengthy par try. Thorbjornsen was in danger of losing the match on No. 18 after he pushed his approach shot on the par 4 well right of the green, but he hit a delicate pitch to about 2 feet to save par and extend the match.
On the 21st hole, Sisk’s par try from 26 feet stopped just on the lip of the hole, allowing Thorbjornsen to lag his birdie try to concession distance. In his USGA championship debut, he will have a chance to win it all on Saturday.
“That was quite the amazing 21 holes. Cameron and I really didn't let up at one point throughout our match,” said Thorbjornsen. “I mean, just being on TV for one more day, and playing this amazing golf course for 36 more holes, that's amazing. I just can't wait until tomorrow. I'm playing with one of my best friends, Akshay, and it should be a lot of fun.”
Bhatia and Thorbjornsen will square off in the 36-hole final on Saturday beginning at 7 a.m. EDT on Baltusrol’s Upper Course. Admission is free and fans are encouraged to attend. FS1 will have live TV coverage beginning at 1 p.m. EDT.
The winner of Saturday’s championship match will earn an exemption into the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. The exemption was announced in October of last year, meaning this will be the first championship match in which the finalists will know that a U.S. Open exemption is up for grabs.
With their semifinal victories, Bhatia and Thorbjornsen earned spots in the 2018 U.S. Amateur, to be played at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links Aug. 13-19. Bhatia had already qualified for the championship via sectional qualifying, while Thorbjornsen had not previously entered. Hammer and Sisk had both previously earned spots in the field.
The 21-hole match between Thorbjornsen and Sisk was the longest semifinal match in the U.S. Junior Amateur since 2014, when eventual runner-up Davis Riley defeated Sam Horsfield in 21 holes at The Club at Carlton Woods (Nicklaus Course), in The Woodlands, Texas.
Cole Hammer (lost to Akshay Bhatia, 4 and 3):
“I completely lost my feel on the greens for some reason. I couldn't judge my speed at all. I was leaving everything thing like two feet short. Normally I hit my putts in the back of the hole and I was dying everything in. I was just all out of sorts. Akshay took advantage of that.”
Cameron Sisk (lost to Michael Thorbjornsen in 21 holes):
“It's a little rough. I played well. I hit a couple of clutch shots. I had a few chances to end it. I guess it wasn't my day. I think he just hit a couple of good shots and I didn't really execute and he took advantage of it. That's that.”