By LARRY MORITZ

The Salina Journal

It was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What made it even more special for Parker Renz and Parker Norton was the chance to experience it with a good friend.

Renz and Norton, both seniors at Salina South High School, competed in the Pure Insurance Championship Impacting The First Tee golf tournament this past week in Pebble Beach, Calif. The annual event matches players for the PGA’s Champions Tour with junior players from First Tee programs across the country.

Both Norton and Renz were selected to represent the First Tee of Salina chapter. They are the eighth and ninth players from Salina to participate in the event since 2007, but it marked the first time two players from the local chapter have been selected in the same year.

“That was one of the cooler things about it, to go out there and experience it together,” Norton said. “During practice rounds we were able to bounce ideas off each other, like what would you do here and what club would you use there.

“It was definitely the best way to experience it and with both of our dads there, I know it is something we both won’t ever forget.”

“He’s one of my best friends and it was cool to be able to experience the this with him,” Renz said. “We would have been happy for one another if only one of us got to go to the event, but this was better. We spent a lot of time together, and my parents and I ate dinners with him and his dad.

“He would always come over and we would play Pebble Beach on the old Tiger Woods video game, so it was cool to play a practice round together at Pebble Beach. We talked about the shots we remembered playing on the video game.”

The three-day tournament started on Friday, but the week started for both Salina golfers with a travel day on Monday, Sept. 24. They played three practice rounds together — two at Poppy Hills Golf Course on Tuesday and Thursday, one at Pebble Beach Golf Links on Wednesday — and attended several events held in conjunction with the tournament.

Paired with legend

That included a Tuesday night get-together where each of the 81 junior players invited to the event learned who their professional playing partner would be for the tournament later in the week.

Norton was paired with Mark Walker from Fort Worth, Texas, who turned 50 last November, making him eligible for Champions Tour events for the first time in 2018. Like Norton, Walker was playing Pebble Beach and Poppy Hills for the first time.

“I knew he had some success on the Web.com tour and he actually played some mini tour events in Kansas,” Norton said. “He just turned 50 and is a really good player. He’s a ball-striking machine and I think he only missed two fairways all week.”

Renz was paired with Tom Watson, perhaps the most recognizable Champions player in the field. Watson, 69 and a Kansas native, won eight majors in his career and another six on the Champions Tour. Perhaps his most famous shot was his chip-in on No. 17 at Pebble Beach in the final round of his victory at the 1982 U.S. Open.

“I don’t know how they decided partners,” Renz said. “On Tuesday night everybody got a new golf bag and they had us each open a pouch that had a letter in it. That letter had your name and who you were paired with, and it was incredible to see Tom Watson’s name.

“There was a really small chance to be paired with one of the greatest golfers ever, so that was a cool experience.”

It was cool at first, but after talking with some of the other junior players in the tournament, Renz realized it might also come with some added pressure.

“At first I was really excited and really looking forward to it,” Renz said. “When it was getting closer to the first round, there were kids coming up and saying there would be a camera crew following us and the crowds would be bigger with people wanting to follow Tom Watson, so I got a little nervous.

“Tom told me a lot of stuff to calm my nerves, like taking deep breaths and when walking from shot to shot, to slow my pace down.”

Playing in front of the biggest crowds of their relatively short careers was added pressure, but Renz and Norton got a taste of what they would face earlier in the week when warming up on the driving range.

“Parker and I were out there the first day,” Norton said, “and all of the sudden John Cook is up there next to us and Tommy Armour is on the other side. Those guys are pretty good and it made me a little nervous and feel like I had to hit a good shot in front of them.

“Then we were playing in front of the biggest crowds we’ve ever played in front of before, but I’ll take those kinds of crowds any time.”

Unforgettable No. 7

When asked whether there was any particular shot or hole that would stand out as a distinct memory in the future, both Renz and Norton recalled tee shots from the same hole.

“No. 7 at Pebble Beach, a short par 3 and downhill too,” Norton said. “We played that hole in the afternoon and the wind was blowing off the ocean about 25 to 30 miles per hour.

“I hit a shot in there about six feet under the hole and had it spin back. It made it memorable to hit that shot under those conditions.”

“Hole No. 7 and the downhill par 3, with the ocean coming up and hitting the rocks behind the hole,” Renz said. “In the tournament I hit it to about 10 feet on that hole but missed the birdie putt.

“Then on No. 18 I smashed a drive to the tree in the middle of the fairway. I wanted to layup and didn’t feel comfortable hitting a 3-wood to a small green with all those people around it. But Tom Watson said ‘Buddy, you are at Pebble Beach. You need to go for the green.’ I hit the 3-wood but missed the green right.”

Magical week’

Although neither Salina player made the cut after Saturday’s second round, the both were able to participate in a final round of competition Sunday at Poppy Hills with other junior players.

“For the juniors who missed the cut, there were Ryder Cup style matches at Poppy Hills in the morning,” Norton said. “After that we went to the 18th green at Pebble Beach and hung out by the scoreboard and watched the final groups come in.

“It went by incredibly fast. If felt like we left yesterday and then poof, it was over. But it was definitely a magical week and one I will never forget.”

Norton, the son of Amy and John Norton, was accompanied on the trip by his father. Renz, the son of Sandi and Charles Renz, had both parents in attendance. Both players have been members of the South varsity golf team the last three years, including the regional championship team in 2016 and league championship team this past spring, and both will complete their high school careers this coming spring.

Grateful for First Tee

The First Tee of Salina is one of 150 First Tee chapters in the nation and both Norton and Renz had to apply to participate in the Pure Insurance Championship. They are also grateful for the opportunities participating in the First Tee program has allowed them to experience.

“Obviously the First Tee has been incredible, fitting the bill on all of this for us,” Norton said. “To be able to play twice at Pebble Beach and four times at Poppy Hills — I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for us. It was an unforgettable week for sure.”

“If it wasn’t for the First Tee I wouldn’t be able to speak about all these experiences I’ve had,” Renz said. “They flew me to an event in Michigan where I got to meet a whole bunch of kids from chapters around the country, and I still have a good friend from Minnesota that I met there.

“This time I got a friend from Tennessee and made a good friend from the Houston area. It has given me a chance to meet new people from around the country that I wouldn’t have met if not for First Tee and golf.”