Sandra Thorbjornsen couldn’t make her 10 a.m. tee time one late-summer morning in 2001. Her friends called to inquire about her whereabouts. The excuse they received was hard to contest.
“I was like, ‘I just gave birth!’ ’’ Thorbjornsen exclaimed.
Michael Thorbjornsen was born at 8 a.m. on Sept. 16, hours before his mother planned to play 18. Prior to moving into his family’s Cleveland home, Thorbjornsen was shuttled to the local golf course in what would serve as foreshadowing for a life spent on the links. The elder Thorbjornsen plopped her newborn down in front of the first tee as he spent his second day on Earth listening to the ping of driver meeting golf ball.
Thorbjornsen proved a quick learner. At eight months, he had internalized what he witnessed in his first hours of sunlight. Toy clubs were for the less-advanced infant.
“We had a mat with a net in the house [and] a high ceiling,’’ his mother recalled. “[Michael] took a golf club, put it underneath his right arm, and was just turning his torso and hitting the ball. He could barely walk. He’d put a ball on the tee, sit down, put a full-sized club underneath his right armpit, twist his body, and hit the ball. He’d hit 60 balls in a row at eight months.’’
Fast-forward 16 years and Thorbjornsen, who now calls Wellesley home, can confidently refer to himself as the best junior golfer in the United States. By edging top-ranked high schooler Akshay Bhatia, 1 up, in the US Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., on July 21, Thorbjornsen earned the cross-country flight of a lifetime.
He will play in the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach.
“There were definitely some rough patches throughout the tournament where I felt if things were to just go my way on this one hole or if I just made this one putt then it could quickly turn the tides,’’ said Thorbjornsen, who had dug himself into a three-hole deficit through six in the 36-hole championship.
Thorbjornsen’s confidence meter rarely suffers a dip.
At the age of 2, he was playing nine holes, his mother tracking and carding his score. While his pals fraternized in sandboxes, Thorbjornsen was digging his way out of sand traps. When Sandra tried to explain to her son that the goal was avoiding, not seeking bunkers, Michael didn’t waver.
“He said, ‘No, I want to put it in the sand bunker,’ ’’ she recalled. “His golf round when he was 2 was: tee, to bunker — and he wouldn’t miss the bunker — to the green, to the hole.’’
Golf is more a creed and less a hobby among the Thorbjornsen clan.
Sandra moved to Cleveland from Norway at the age of 23, shortly after marrying Michael’s father, Ted. While he worked on an MBA, she retained her old job from overseas through a satellite connection. Ted urged Sandra to pick up golf as a means for networking, and soon found she had the swing of a natural.
The DNA transfer from mother to first-born son went off without a hitch. As Michael grew, so too did the length of his drives.
With the passing of time, reality shifted for the Thorbjornsen family. In 2016, Ted took a job out of the country. Meanwhile, Sandra found herself lugging Michael’s three younger sisters to his local tournaments, doubling as his mentor and swing coach. Soon, the sheer number of responsibilities became untenable.
Acting against cries of resistance from her heart, Sandra decided to send Michael to IMG Academy in Florida, a sports preparatory boarding school where she had previously interned. The move allowed Thorbjornsen to begin qualifying for American Junior Golf Association tournaments while improving his national ranking.
Then, two days before he set off for Baltusrol, Thorbjornsen encountered one of the bigger roadblocks of his early years. Raw luck manifested itself in the form of swollen glands, a sore throat, and a nasty fever touching 104 degrees.
“It really just popped up out of nowhere,’’ he said. “I woke up with a very sore throat and then throughout the day I just got weaker, more exhausted. It was just really bad. If the USJA was the next day I would have had to withdraw 100 percent.’’
Thorbjornsen’s mother advised him to stay home in Wellesley and recover fully. Naturally, he bristled at the suggestion. Though still not 100 percent upon arriving in New Jersey, Michael’s message rang clear long before festivities commenced on the first tee: “I’m going to win it.’’
Motherly love knows no bounds, but even Sandra questioned whether her son would have enough in the tank to make good on his proclamation. Her 16-year old hadn’t won in more than a year. Instead of analyzing the in-round footage she had videotaped as in years prior, Sandra was forced to observe the first extended rough patch of Michael’s budding career from afar.
But when Michael first stepped on the Baltusrol grounds, his demeanor underwent a noticeable shift. The lethargy and melancholy that had ruled his reality for 48 hours was fading, replaced by an air of tranquility.
“Immediately after he got out of the car, he was a totally different person,’’ said his mother. “I don’t know what it was about that place. Something happened to him: He got up and was very calm, smiling, and unbothered by anything. I think the sickness might have helped him cut the edge.’’
Armed with antibiotics and a restored vigor, Thorbjornsen took flight, breezing through the event’s stroke-play portion, winning his first four matches with ease to claim a spot in the semifinals. There, it took 21 holes for Thorbjornsen to outlast Cameron Sisk, clutch putting and a dab of luck from the heavens booking him a spot in the final.
Had Thorbjornsen faced off against Bhatia in the semis, his dreams would have been toast. But the final round of the USJA is 36 holes, not 18. Down two heading back to the first tee, Thorbjornsen drew upon the positive momentum he had accumulated on his final few swings at holes 16-18, figuring putts that hadn’t fallen during his first trip around the course would find bottom in the afternoon session.
His hunch came on good authority. Thorbjornsen squared the match on No. 24, then pried open a one-shot gap with a birdie at No. 32, eventually vanquishing his opponent and friend by halving the closing four holes.
Early the following week after his USJA triumph, Thorbjornsen was back in his home state, competing in the Wyndham Cup at Old Sandwich Golf Club in Plymouth.
Hardly surprising for the youngster who practically rolled out of his mother’s hospital bed and onto the golf course.
“It’s definitely a dream come true playing in the US Open,’’ Thorbjornsen said. “I definitely have to keep working hard. I feel like if I keep doing what I’m doing, keep the same mindset, things should fall into place.’’