By MARC PRUITT
Missing a cut and being severely jet-lagged never felt so good for Matthew Guo and Mark Johnston.
Guo, a rising sophomore at West Forsyth in Clemmons, and Johnston, a rising senior for the Titans, both played in the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach September 22-27 as representatives of the First Tee of the Triad.
Even though neither made the cut nor played in the final round, you would never know they were disappointed after playing at one of the most famous venues in the world.
“What’s not to like about playing at Pebble Beach?” Johnston said. “I mean, I’m a little disappointed we missed the cut, but that doesn’t outweigh the total experience. I couldn’t have dreamed for anything better than this. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. It was everything I’d dreamed of and more.”
Guo echoed Johnston’s sentiment.
“Hands down, the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Guo, who won the Forsyth Junior over the summer. “It was more than just golf. I’m thankful that I got selected by the First Tee. It was just an incredible experience from start to finish, one that I know I’ll never forget.”
The Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach is a 54-hole golf event that features 81 Champions Tour players and 81 junior golfers ages 15-18.
The tournament is played at Pebble Beach Golf Links and Poppy Hills Golf Course along the scenic coastline of the Monterrey Peninsula.
To be selected to play in the event, junior players must go through a rigorous application process that includes an application, writing five essays about the First Tee’s nine core values, and submitting academic records, golf achievements and list of extracurricular activities they are involved in.
Both Guo and Johnston were paired with professionals that gave their partnerships a little local flare.
Guo was paired with Gary Hallberg, who rose to fame through an outstanding collegiate career at Wake Forest and won three times on the PGA Tour and once on the Champions Tour.
Johnston partnered with Reidsville native Mike Goodes, who has collected one win on the Champions Tour.
Both Guo and Johnston raved about their partnerships during the event.
“Mr. Hallberg was extremely encouraging when we played together and gave me some great advice,” Guo said. “He was a very calming influence and was very supportive, which really helped me relax and not stress out too much about the situation.”
Johnston had a similar experience with Goodes.
“He was just great to be around,” Johnston said. “So positive about everything and after the week, I felt like I had known him for years. We’ve exchanged numbers and are going to try to keep up with one another now since he lives in the area. I can’t say enough great things about him and how he embraced me.”
Guo and Johnston both arrived in the San Francisco area on the Saturday before the tournament began, taking time to explore the city for a few days before heading to Pebble Beach.
“Matthew’s Aunt took us around Chinatown, and that was definitely a memorable experience,” Johnston said. “I knew some of the guys who were playing in the tournament from being in junior events with them, but to be able to share the experience with Matthew, a high-school teammate and part of the same First Tee chapter as me made things even more enjoyable. We had a comfort with each other because we already knew each other. It was fun to talk to him every day after our rounds to share our stories about the day.”
Once Guo and Johnston arrived at Pebble Beach, they got to play practice rounds on the two host courses.
Guo played his practice round at Pebble Beach with Champions Tour player Jose Coceres and said that despite an early-morning rain, once the weather cleared, he couldn’t help but take in the natural beauty of the course.
“I was most definitely caught up in the moment,” Guo said. “I was busy being mesmerized by all the surroundings. What you see on television doesn’t do it justice with all the great scenery. Holes six, seven, and eight, really stand out.”
Guo played his first round of the tournament at Poppy Hills and wasn’t happy with his score, but said that he was able to get all his nerves out.
“I was definitely nervous and couldn’t keep my legs from shaking when I played at Poppy,” Guo said. “But the next day at Pebble, I was actually pretty relaxed and went out and shot a 74. Even though we missed the cut by three shots, it really didn’t matter too much.”
Johnston was also a little awestruck when it came time for his practice round at Pebble.
“That was definitely the only time I’ve ever been nervous in a practice round,” Johnston said. “There was definitely a little shake in my hands. You just think about the fact that you are teeing off at Pebble Beach and how neat that is, and it’s hard to keep your composure. But I ended up hitting a great tee shot on the first hole and played well the rest of the day. I ended up shooting a 73 during the tournament there, so getting the jitters out during the practice round was definitely helpful.”
Johnston wanted to try to replicate one of the most iconic moments from Pebble Beach — Tom Watson’s chip-in for birdie on the 17th hole that clinched his U.S. Open win in 1982 — but there was one snag during his practice round.
“They had the pin up in the front of the green, so I couldn’t do it,” Johnston said. “But on 18, I hit my tee shot right under the tree in the fairway, almost exactly where Tiger was in 2010, and hit a great approach into the greenside bunker for my second shot. Ended up making par though, but that was alright.”
Both players said they wouldn’t be where they are now without the influence of the First Tee of the Triad.
“I got my start there when I was seven or eight,” Guo said. “I can’t explain how beneficial the program has been to me, not only for the golf, but for the person I have become. The nine core values have been a great influence in my life. Being a part of the First Tee isn’t just about becoming a great golfer, it’s about becoming a great person. This was an experience that was a culmination of all the work I’ve done over the years, and I don’t get to this point without the First Tee.”
Johnston said he came away from the experience with nothing but positives.
“I definitely wanted to embrace the scenery and atmosphere while I was playing golf, but just being able to be around so many people who were so accommodating and willing to talk to you was great,” Johnston said. “I can’t say enough great things about what The First Tee has done for me. It’s a great organization that seeks to build people, not just golfers. I’m fortunate that I was selected to be in the tournament and can’t thank them enough for recognizing me. It was truly an honor.”