Michael Thorbjornsen arrived at Brae Burn Country Club on Tuesday afternoon with a bit of buzz surrounding his appearance. The 19 year-old kid from Wellesley had never played in the Massachusetts State Amateur before, but his success on the national stage, and in other MassGolf events, preceded him. By the time he left on Saturday afternoon with the championship trophy he had made history and helped put Massachusetts into the golf discourse on a Saturday during the weekend of the Open Championship.
The opening hole at Brae Burn is a reachable downhill par 4. A parade of the best players in the state stepped up and pulled long irons and hybrids to leave a wedge into the green, avoiding the risk of hitting their ball into the creek that guards the front of the green (How do I know this? I was there as an alternate watching group after group hit their opening tee shots…)
However, the eventual finalists, Matt Parziale and Michael Thorbjornsen, both pulled driver on the opening hole of the MassAm Championship. Both players also had to hit second tee balls. “Parz” found his first tee shot and made par, however, Thorbjornsen didn’t find his first and actually had to return to the tee after searching for his ball. Reappearing up the hill to the first tee with a smile and apology to the group waiting, “Sorry for the wait.”
He stood up and ripped another driver, found it, and made a double bogey six to start his tournament. He’d play the next 35 holes of stroke play in 9-under par and wouldn’t record another “6” on the scorecard… the entire week.
According to MassGolf and a quick internet search, the final match between Parziale and Thorbjornsen was the first state amateur final between two USGA champions. Parziale won the US MidAm in 2017 at Capital City Club and Thorbjorsen won the US Junior Am in 2018 over Akshay Bhatia who turned pro in 2019. The level of play in the final was proof of their national championship chops.
Of course, it takes a little bit of luck for two players to meet in the finals of a match play event. Seeding matters, too. Parziale and Thornbjornsen both had to run through a gauntlet of exceptional players both young and old. Parziale had to dispatch Frank Vana Jr. a two time Massachusetts Player of the Decade and Hall of Famer. Stroke play medalist and fellow MidAm was waiting in the quarterfinals and Brae Burn member Christopher Bornhorst was Parziale’s semi-final opponent. Thornbjornsen has Chris Francoeur in the semi-finals, a young talent in his own right, he’ll be using his extra year of college eligibility at Louisville after the pandemic wiped out his final year at University of Rhode Island. Thorbjornsen and Francoeur might see each other this year with their college teams, as both are at the top of the national rankings.
Oftentimes, the match-up fans hope for, in any sport, don’t come to fruition. A team or player stumbles and loses before delivering what everyone really wants.
But Parz and Thor did their part and delivered this week.
The 36 hole match was closed out on the 30th hole, but the par 3 twelfth in the back of the property was also a microcosm of the day. After making birdie on the ninth hole, Parziale had the honor (they split the tenth with birdies…), but Parz was 7 down with 7 to play and needed an incredible amount of magic to push the match to the final three holes considering how solid Thorbjornsen was playing. The magic nearly came when Parziale’s tee shot landed an inch from the hole, bounced long and spun back as it took a quick peak at the cup before spinning back to 12 feet below the sloped Donald Ross green. Some 19 year-olds might have been rattled by the shot and the crowd’s reaction (it was certainly a pro-Parz crowd given his long standing in MassGolf events).
Instead, Thorbjornsen stepped up and hit another solid shot. From the green, his reaction was somewhat displeased as his ball soared through the air, but when it landed a few feet from the cup and spun back to about 10 feet from the flag, the pressure was right back on Parziale’s shoulders. He needed a birdie, but when his birdie putt slid by the cup Parz pulled off his hat and congratulated Thorbjornsen on his victory.
The fact that the match ended as far from the clubhouse as possible allowed me to process the day before watching the trophy ceremony. The competitors shot a combined 15-under par on the opening 18 holes - Thorbjornsen shooting 62 and Parziale a 67 (these are unofficial due to match play and players conceding putts.). Over the 30 holes of the match, the players combined for 28 birdies and 1 eagle. It’s truly staggering golf, in a setting that can make excellent players look normal and nervous, these two men played some of the greatest amateur golf that anyone could imagine.
Parziale described Thornbjornsen as a “world beater” after the round. Considering Parziale was 9-under par for 30 holes, it indeed took a world beating effort from Thorbjornsen to just win the match, but to win it 8&6 meant that Thorbjornsen played better than a world beater. Thorbjornsen was 16-under par through those 30 holes. He’s also leaving Brae Burn with another notch in his belt, a course record 64, (which Nick Maccario also shot in the 2019 Mass MidAm). Thorbjornsen needed 30 putts to shoot 64, which is simply incredible. Over 18 holes, he made 34 full swings. A “perfect” score of even-par 72 would require 36 putts and 36 full swings.
The term “buzzsaw” is often used to describe the bad luck of playing a player at his peak. Parziale wasn’t disappointed with his play on Saturday, it was impossible to feel upset with how he played and how he hung in there. Of course losing stings every competitor. But Saturday’s round made me think that “buzzsaw” didn’t do justice to what Parziale had to battle at Brae Burn. Instead, it might have been Thor’s Hammer. It seems to me a lot of golfers around the country and the world might encounter that same hammer in the future.