The first time that Noah Norton played Pebble Beach Golf Links, it was a round to celebrate family and golf. He was 14, and he played with his father and grandfather at the famed course in northern California.
“We wanted to play one time all three of us before my grandpa got too old,” said Norton, a Georgia Tech junior. “We got out here to play one time. It’s pretty hard to get out here for just regular people.”
Norton is back at Pebble Beach this week, having finagled another tee time, and this one was even harder to obtain than the family threesome. On Thursday, Norton will go off the first tee at 11:57 a.m. (ET) at the U.S. Open. He joins an esteemed line of Yellow Jackets players who have earned a spot in the national championship as amateurs, a group that starts with the legendary Bobby Jones and also includes Bunky Henry, David Duval, Matt Kuchar and, more recently, Ollie Schniederjans. Norton’s teammate Tyler Strafaci made the field last year.
“The course is amazing,” Norton said Monday in a videoconference interview with Atlanta media following a practice round. “Can’t ask for much more being at Pebble Beach, and the greens, conditions of it is just incredible. The views, you can’t even begin to describe it. Just being at the U.S. Open, it’s awesome being here.”
Norton, who is from Chico, Calif., earned his spot in the 156-player field alongside three-time defending champion Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and the best golfers in the world through two rounds of qualifying. He was one of 8,602 players to start in local qualifying, then advanced to sectional qualifying, where he was one of 78 of 927 competitors to make it into the U.S. Open field.
On June 3, Norton shot 11 under par over two rounds at Hawks Ridge Golf Club in Ball Ground, tying for medalist honors with Schniederjans, now in his third season on the PGA Tour. (Another local amateur of note also qualified out of Hawks Ridge, Alpharetta High grad Chandler Eaton, who is a rising senior at Duke.)
Norton is one of 15 amateurs in the field. At Pebble Beach, he at least has the company of four other former Tech players – Matt Kuchar, Roberto Castro, Chesson Hadley and Schniederjans. He was to play practice rounds with Kuchar on Tuesday and Schniederjans and Castro on Wednesday.
“It’s nice to have people who have gone through it and gone to the same school as you and someone to talk to,” Norton said.
Norton isn’t necessarily the player that one would have picked off Tech’s ACC championship team to make it the U.S. Open. While a two-time All-ACC player, Norton ranked fourth on the team in stroke average and finished the season ranked 74th nationally. At the NCAA championship in Fayetteville, Ark., Norton’s last event before the qualifier at Hawks Ridge, Norton was 124th of 156 with a three-round score of 19 over par.
Norton said that, anticipating a course with tight fairways at the NCAA championship, he worked heavily on accuracy with his driver. He said he kept the ball in the fairways, only to have his iron play fail him. With a week between the NCAA event and the qualifier, Norton focused on honing in his distance control with his irons, and the results followed. He had 15 birdies in 36 holes and won one of four spots in a 67-player field rife with professionals.
“It’s not necessarily about what you’ve done or how bad you’ve played or anything, it’s just about taking that week, learning the most you can from it and getting better,” Norton said.
At Pebble Beach, he’ll have plenty of family and friends in the gallery. Chico is about 180 miles by car to the north. On Monday, he seemed in control of his emotions and not starstruck by the magnitude of the event. He said he played a few holes last Friday “to get that kind of (overwhelmed) feeling settled down, so I was ready to go by (Monday).”
He’ll have the brother of a friend from Chico, Daniel Kitayama, caddying for him. With narrow fairways and thick rough, it’s a penalizing course, but he sounded optimistic.
“It’s just basically, if you can keep it in the fairway, you can score,” Norton said. “Because it’s not the longest U.S. Open course, but what it is, it’s narrow, the greens are smaller.”
In the past five years, 13 of 73 amateurs (18 percent) have made the cut to make it to the weekend. Schniederjans made the cut in 2015 and finished in a tie for 42nd. Strafaci was two strokes off the cut last year. Asked what would make this a successful week, Norton gave a qualitative answer.
“Just sticking to my game plan,” he said. “Knowing who I am, what I can do, just playing to the best of my ability.”