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A U.S. Open Berth is On the Line, and the Finalists Know It

By Stuart Hall

| Jul 20, 2018 | Springfield, N.J.

Thorbjornsen (left) and Bhatia will both be at Pebble Beach for the 2018 U.S. Amateur, and one will be there for the 2019 U.S. Open. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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The presence of two USGA championship trophies behind the first teeing ground for the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship’s semifinals on Friday was undeniable.

As the 156-player field’s final four players hit their respective opening shots of the afternoon matches at Baltusrol Golf Club, the U.S. Amateur’s slender, gold Havemeyer Trophy and U.S. Junior Amateur’s husky, sterling silver bowl sat as prominent reminders of the week-long stakes..

“Yeah, that was something else,” said Akshay Bhatia, 16, of Wake Forest, N.C., who defeated Cole Hammer, 4 and 2, to reach Saturday’s 36-hole final against Michael Thorbjornsen, 16, of Wellesley, Mass. By virtue of their semifinal wins, Bhatia and Thorbjornsen earned places in next month’s U.S. Amateur. “The amount of history in all of those championships, just looking at all those great names. Butterflies come in your stomach when you see them.”

Wait until Saturday, when the U.S. Open Championship Trophy will shine under the morning light when the final match begins at 7 a.m. EDT. That’s because the winner of this 71st championship also earns an exemption into the 2019 U.S. Open.

“I will definitely look at [the U.S. Open trophy], just, hopefully, not drool on it,” said Thorbjornsen, who defeated Cameron Sisk in 21 holes in the second semifinal match.

The caveat is that both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open will be played at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif.

“Just thinking about it gives me the chills,” said Bhatia, who was already in the U.S. Amateur by virtue of being the medalist at a 36-hole sectional qualifying roundat James River Country Club in Newport News, Va., on July 10. “To go back to Pebble [for the U.S. Open] would be unreal, playing with the best players in the world. Seeing Noah Goodwin go out there this year was inspiring. It’s just something you can’t really think about.”

In October 2017, the USGA announced that an exemption into the U.S. Open would be given to the U.S. Junior Amateur champion. Goodwin, who won last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur at Flint Hills National Golf Club in Andover, Kan., three months earlier, was exempted retroactively.

Thorbjornsen, who is playing in his first USGA championship this week, had not entered the U.S. Amateur. Now he won’t have to. The thought of being exempt for the U.S. Open on top of it? Well, that’s something Thorbjornsen, winner of the 2016 Drive, Chip & Putt National Final’s 14-15 age division, has a difficult time grasping.

“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” he said. “I have thought about it, but I don’t think I realize how big of a deal it is. Whenever I hear the U.S. Open, I think of pros playing in it, so I don’t really think of myself playing in it.” 

That could change on Saturday.

Pebble Beach has hosted a combined nine U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Opens. The last time the venue hosted the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in consecutive years, David Gossett won the 1999 U.S. Amateur, followed by Tiger Woods winning the 2000 U.S. Open. The only USGA championship held at Pebble Beach since then was the 2010 U.S. Open, won by Graeme McDowell.

As iconic of a venue as Pebble Beach is in the USGA fabric of championships, neither Bhatia nor Thorbjornsen have played the course or know much about that history, as much of it happened before they were born. Bhatia knows of Watson’s miraculous chip out of the rough at the par-3 17th hole to aid his win over Jack Nicklaus in 1982, while Thorbjornsen referenced Woods’ record 15-stroke win in 2000.

“Or maybe I have that wrong, was it Torrey Pines?” he questioned.

Bhatia and Thorbjornsen admit that they have tried to keep such forward-thinking thoughts as playing in future championships from their respective game plans. The presence of the trophies, though, makes it tempting to dream.  

“You just say, one day, one day I will be there,” Bhatia said. “Hopefully we’re at step one.”

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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