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RUMFORD, Rhode Island – When tournament chairman Ben Tuthill begins piecing the Northeast Amateur together in the wintertime, he looks for elite-level college players to fill out the field of 92 players.
This year, there are several Massachusetts amateur golfers who fit the bill.
For most of the year, Wellesley’s Michael Thorbjornsen (Stanford) and Brookline’s James Imai (Northwestern) are training and competing far away from the familiar fairways of New England. But for a short window in early summer, both are competing locally, and enjoying the comforts of home, with home cooking and familiar faces. When counting for college players, mid-amateurs, and junior amateurs, 12 hail from the Bay State.
Beginning Wednesday, they began competing at the Northeast Amateur, known for decades as “The Masters of Amateur Golf.” Held annually at the pristine Wannamoisett Country Club (par 69, 6,728 yards), the Northeast Amateur is a 72-hole stroke play event that is part of a series of national summer amateur golf events. It’s a cherished invitational that has offered a glimpse into the future of those players who likely, or in some cases already have, walked the pristine fairways of Augusta National and might one day lift the Masters Trophy. (Dustin Johnson, 2007 Northeast Amateur winner, is the most recent to win both events.)
“This is one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” said Imai, a 3-time Mass Junior Amateur champion. “This is one of the better fields in amateur golf, so to be part of it and test my game against the best is a good opportunity.”
Since his debut in the Northeast Amateur in 2018, Thorbjornsen has traveled across the country and even to the other side of the globe for golf. He went to Australia in late 2019 to help the U.S. win the Junior Presidents Cup and played in the 2019 U.S. Open. He has also tried out for the U.S. Walker Cup team and made it to the quarterfinals of the 2020 U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
Though his first year at Stanford had some hiccups, including team COVID-19 cases and no fall season, he said he was able to make the best of it. He made the All-Pac-12 Newcomer Team with a stroke average of 72.09 in 23 rounds played. His best round was 7-under 65 in the final round of the Pac-12 Championships.
“Stanford was great this year, just getting to meet the team and the coaches,” Thorbjornsen said. “I learned a lot this past year, and I think I’m a better golfer all-around.”
While this tournament might not have the same bright lights as an NCAA Tournament, there were still plenty of emotions displayed with every great make and frustrating miss. Thorbjornsen was no exception as after tapping in for double-bogey on his final hole to finish 1-over on Wednesday, he picked his ball out of the hole and chucked it into the pond behind him.
While frustrated at the finish, he said he’s learned over the past years that patience in tournaments like these is key. He made two birdies before making the turn and stepped up the 9th tee at 1-under.
“One thing I really learned a lot is it will come if you’re playing well,” said Thorbjornsen, who finished T23 after Round 1. With 36-holes remaining before the field is cut to the low 60 and ties, there’s plenty of ground for him to make up.
Thorbjornsen is also completing with his best friend and college teammate Karl Vilips. The Australian looped for Thorbjornsen during the 2020 US Amateur, but the two go back to age 10 when they played junior golf together. When Vilips was last at Wannamoisett in 2019, he tied the competitive course record of 61. Vilips has traveled to New England frequently, even staying with Thorbjornsen in Wellesley for six weeks last year as Vilips recovered from surgery on a broken hand.
“We were basically best friends before going to school,” Thorbjornsen said of Vilips. “So it’s just like solidifying it being there every day now.”
This won’t be the only Northeast event Thorbjornsen will play in either. He confirmed Wednesday that’ll he’ll make his debut in the Massachusetts Amateur Championship, taking place July 12-17. It’ll be his first Mass Golf event since winning the Pre-Junior title at the Mass Junior Amateur in 2017. Typically, Thorbjornsen is traveling elsewhere during the week of the Mass Amateur but this year said he’d rather compete at Brae Burn Country Club, just up the road from his home in Wellesley, instead of making the trip to Mississippi for the Southern Amateur.
Imai, a Preseason Big Ten Honoree, has also been well-traveled. During Spring Break, the team got to practice and play at Cypress Point, set along California’s serene coastline in Pebble Beach.
“Being able to play one of the best courses in America is always a treat,” Imai said.
After competing in the Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, last week, Imai drove back with his teammate John Driscoll, who is also playing in the Northeast. The two are also roommates, and Driscoll said he’s impressed with Imai’s knowledge of the game.
“He loves everything about the game,” Driscoll said of Imai. “He loves watching pro golf, the architecture, and the different course designs. We bond over that, and he’s become a really good friend, and I’ve been really lucky to live with him.”
After the Fourth of July holiday, Imai said he plans to compete in the Trans-Mississippi Amateur Championship followed by the Southern Amateur. He’ll also try to qualify for the Western Amateur, but if not says he’d like to play in the Mass Golf’s Amateur Public Links Championships.
Despite a 2-over 71 on Wednesday, Imai certainly has the ability to go low. At the Ouimet Memorial Tournament, he fired a 65 at Framingham Country Club, and a number like that in the next few rounds could help move him into contention.
“Being home and being in a place I’m really comfortable with, a place that I feel suits my game, that’s the best part about being here,” Imai said.
While the college players draw most of the attention, it was 34-year-old Matt Parziale (Thorny Lea Golf Club), who led the group of Massachusetts players through the first 18 holes. Parziale, a six-time Mass Golf Player of the Year, was the first player to finish 1-under in the clubhouse and ended the day T5 with 12 other competitors.
“I think I’m getting older quicker than the older guys were, but I guess that happens to everybody,” said Parziale, when asked what it was like to be the “old guy” among the leading players.
Parziale first competed in the event as a college student at Southeastern University in the mid-2000s and has returned to the event several times since. On Wednesday, he kept a relatively clean card, as his final hole, the 9th, was his lone bogey.
“It’s nice being close to home so wouldn’t miss this one,” said Parziale, a Brockton native. “The course is maybe the best we’ve ever seen.”
Still bearing the scar from a broken arm suffered in October, Parziale said the arm has been getting better each day, which in turn seems to be helping steadily improve his swing.
Parziale also had an interesting pairing Wednesday with Andres Schonbaum, of Argentina. Parziale won the 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur, and when he defended the title the year after, he lost to Schonbaum in the first round of match play.
Even though Parziale shot the better score, “He’s got the upper edge on me right now,” Parziale said with a smile.
Owen Quinn (Worcester CC) got a pleasant surprise around 9 p.m. Tuesday evening when he told a last-minute spot opened up for the Northeast Amateur. Quinn, who played in the Monday Qualifier for The Travelers, had been in touch with Ben Tuthill, the event chairman, earlier in the week letting him know he’d be available. Sure enough, one player had their flight canceled Tuesday and withdrew opening a spot for Quinn.
On his bag was his father Fran Quinn, Jr., who continues to play on the PGA TOUR Champions.
Jack Boulger (Walpole CC) also received a late invite when fellow UConn teammate Caleb Manuel, qualified for the Korn Ferry Tour event in Maine, which begins Thursday.
Did you know there are two separate logos for the Northeast Amateur? The primary one, a sleek silver trophy, is used on the tee markers and most of the signage. But a fan favorite is the fat-headed character of a man wearing a Patriots tricorn hat.
According to Tuthill, the Patriots logo was the original logo but was banned from the club over 20 years ago. When Tuthill took over chairman duties eight years ago, he decided to bring it back and incorporate it with the Patriots logo was merchandise and other branding purposes.
“I brought it back as a dual piece,” Tuthill said. “We just use it in some areas because it’s very unique and stands out, and it’s fitting to the area. I just like it.”
Follow the official Twitter account of the Northeast Amateur (@NortheastAm) for news and updates on the 2021 Northeast Amateur Invitational. For all Mass Golf news, visit MassGolf.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @PlayMassGolf.
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