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BROOKLINE, Mass. – Michael Thorbjornsen was the first player to register for this week’s U.S. Open, picking up his competition badge last Thursday. That’s what happens when you and your caddie are area products – Thorbjornsen and his childhood friend, Drew Cohen, both hail from Wellesley, which is located less than 10 miles from The Country Club.
An early start to their championship, of course, meant plenty of time for some early shopping, so after registering, the youthful pair headed straight to the massive merchandise tent that abuts the first fairway to empty their wallets. On their receipts: matching gray T-shirts with the year “1913” emblazoned on the front and set behind the silhouettes of Francis Ouimet and Eddie Lowery, the local player-caddie duo who pulled off the ultimate upset at this very course more than a century ago.
“We were joking around with Robbie [Zalzneck] from the USGA,” said Cohen, who joined Thorbjornsen in wearing the shirt to the course the next day. “We walked in and were like, this is hopefully going to be us.”
The common thread between Thorbjornsen and Ouimet, however, runs thicker than any garment.
The rising Stanford junior is a 20-year-old amateur and the reigning Massachusetts State Amateur champion, just like Ouimet was during his historic triumph at the 1913 U.S. Open.
And the parallels don’t stop there. Thorbjornsen might not have grown up across the street, but in this year’s field, he’s as close to a hometown favorite as it gets. And Cohen isn’t a 10-year-old playing hooky, though the former high-school hockey player who first caddied for his buddy last summer certainly lacks bag-toting experience, especially at this level.
Thorbjornsen even considers “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 2005 film based on Ouimet’s win, one of his favorite movies.
“I think it's really cool the position that I'm in and how it emulates Francis a little bit,” Thorbjornsen said. “… I'm going to try to do the same thing that he did and just hope for the best.”
But should Thorbjornsen follow in Ouimet’s footsteps and lift the trophy on Sunday evening, one could argue it more improbable than that great game played here in 1913. Unlike Ouimet, who as a kid frequented The Country Club, both as a caddie and player, Thorbjornsen has little familiarity with the exclusive layout. Aside from a few dinners and trips to the club’s pool with friends, Thorbjornsen has spent most of his life outside the gates, only getting to play the course once prior to last week – and even that round came more than a half-decade ago.
No wonder Thorbjornsen has had this one circled on his calendar for years, ever since The Country Club was announced as U.S Open host for a third time – and first since 1988.
“Whenever they’d talk about the U.S. Open in 2022, his eyes would light up,” said Michael’s father, Thorbjorn, who goes by Ted.
But Michael still had to qualify. Fresh off an All-American sophomore campaign in which he led the Cardinal with six top-10s, Thorbjornsen survived an 8-for-3 playoff at the Purchase, New York, final qualifier with a tap-in birdie on the second extra hole to punch his ticket to Brookline.
This will be Thorbjornsen’s second U.S. Open appearance. He made the cut at Pebble Beach three years ago before finishing solo 79th. Coincidentally, that was the last time he had seen his father in person.
Ted Thorbjornsen, who is from Norway, still owns a house in Wellesley, where he resided for over a decade. But for the past six years he’s lived in Abu Dhabi, where he works in project management. Ted remains his son’s only swing coach, teaching these days through videos that Michael sends him.
“We do the best that we can being a couple thousand miles apart,” Michael said.
Until recently, Ted gave up playing golf to focus on his son’s endeavors in the game. Now, he gets to watch Michael, a U.S. Junior Amateur winner in 2018 and now a top-25 amateur in the world, play a major championship in his backyard.
Michael’s gallery this week will also include his mother, Sandra, and his three sisters.
Cohen, who attended two high schools with Thorbjornsen – IMG Academy in Florida and Wellesley High – and now is a student at the University of Wisconsin, will again get a much closer look at that “special talent” whom he’s admired since middle school.
Though Cohen opted not to compete for a walk-on spot on the Badgers’ golf team so he could focus on academics and his fraternity obligations, he’s still a skilled stick. So, when his pal needed a bagman for last June’s Northeast Amateur, he called Cohen, who jumped at the offer. Later that summer, Thorbjornsen, after a record-setting win at the Mass Am, won the Western Amateur and made a run at the U.S. Amateur with Cohen by his side.
“It was instant gratification,” said Cohen, who considers himself, more than anything, positive reinforcement for a player who tends to get frustrated at times.
Case in point: Thorbjornsen bogeyed back-to-back holes late at sectionals before, with Cohen’s help, righting the ship with consecutive closing pars that kept him from falling out of the playoff.
“I know when to talk to him, I know when to leave him alone and I know when to settle him down,” said Cohen, who lists “Caddie – Michael Thorbjornsen” on his LinkedIn page.
Cohen will be put to the test from the get-go this week, as Thorbjornsen is tasked with hitting the first tee ball of the championship at 6:45 a.m. local time Thursday.
"I think the best way is to just take it as just another event," Thorbjornsen said. "... It's kind of nerve-wracking out there, just playing in the U.S. Open, especially 15 minutes away from my house."
(If it helps calm the nerves, Mike, Ouimet did top his first tee ball about 40 yards on that Thursday in 1913.)
Despite Thorbjornsen battling a fractured left wrist – he anticipates having surgery during winter break so that he can play a busy summer schedule that includes next week’s Travelers Championship and the Arnold Palmer Cup in Switzerland – Cohen believes his guy can write another chapter in The Country Club’s small-but-meaningful U.S. Open history book.
“I know that they definitely align, Michael and Francis,” Cohen said. “And to be honest with you, Michael has the game to make a run here. I know that he’s very modest and humble, but I’ll speak for him. He’s an unbelievable player, and hopefully we’ll be making a push at this thing.”
And maybe one day they’ll be selling shirts with Michael and Drew’s silhouettes on them.