As it has for six of the past seven years, the PGA Tour will be celebrating America’s birthday at what is colloquially known as “America’s Resort,” The Greenbrier, for this year’s edition of A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
The crown jewel of West Virginia will host another festive crowd, a miracle after cataclysmic floods massacred the proud, blue-collar region just two years ago.
This year’s event will not have the strongest of fields, but its contingency should be exceptionally motivated with lifestyles and Tour cards up for grabs, and the Open Championship just around the corner.
Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, and defending champion Xander Schauffele are this year’s headliners.
With much at stake, here are the most intriguing of the tournament storylines:
1. SCHAUFFELE DEFENDS
When Xander Schauffele carded a Sunday 67 at The Old White TPC to win The Greenbrier Classic, capped off by a pristine tee shot on the par-3 18th that was among the most beautiful shots of the season, he was very young (23 years old), but not a complete unknown.
Schauffele’s introduction to the sports world had occurred three weeks earlier when he was a shocking contender at the U.S. Open. What his victory – the first victory of his professional career, did was prove that his T5 at Erin Hills was no fluke. In the hills of rural West Virginia, Schauffele tacitly announced, “I’m legitimate”.
Schauffele continued to be tremendous for the rest of 2017 season, posting four more top 20s in his next six events before he captured title No. 2, outdueling a red-hot Justin Thomas at the Tour Championship, the final event of the prestigious FedExCup Playoffs.
Schauffele finished third in the final FedExCup standings and was an obvious choice for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
Now, coming into his defense of his Greenbrier title, Schauffele has not yet added that third victory, which nobody doubts is coming sooner rather than later, but his follow-up to his wildly successful freshman campaign has been largely successful. He has made 15 cuts in 19 events, with four top 10s, and $2.3 million in earnings.
Lately though, Xander has been the epitome of “hit or miss.” Three missed cuts in his last five events are uncharacteristically poor for the Southern California native, but the two cuts he did make were both high finishes against stacked fields: a T2 at THE PLAYERS Championship – the flagship event on the PGA Tour, and a T6 at the U.S. Open, his second straight year in the top 10 of the season’s second major.
Which version of the high-achiever will we see this week? Given the thoroughly mediocre field and the spectacular form he showed at this event last year, another prolific week feels likely.
2. PHIL BACK IN ACTION
The biggest name among A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier’s 156 participants is easily Phil Mickelson. A 43-time PGA Tour winner and five-time major champion, the extremely popular 48-year-old will be teeing up at The Old White TPC for the fifth consecutive edition of the tournament.
Despite his many successes as a professional golfer, however, Phil has not quite been able to figure out The Greenbrier. He missed the cut on his first three tries, and on his fourth, last season, he was in 61st place through three rounds.
With a Sunday 64, Mickelson exploded 41 spots up the leaderboard into a final position of T20, but the fervent crowds at The Greenbrier have yet to see the Hall of Famer contend.
Perhaps that brilliant Sunday round last year will turn the switch on for Mickelson at this venue. What could help even more is that Phil’s resurgent 2018 season has been his best in years. He ended a five-year winless drought in March at the WGC-Mexico Championship, he was runner-up at Pebble Beach, and he has four other finishes inside the top 6.
He currently ranks 2nd on Tour in strokes gained: putting and 5th in strokes gained: total. His all-time great short game has failed to atrophy in his late 40s. He is still one of the best.
This will be Mickelson’s first start since his controversial rules violation during the third round of the U.S. Open, where he deliberately struck a moving ball on the green, and he will likely continue to be asked about it in West Virginia.
Looking to put the incident behind him, nobody would be happier to see the conversation shift back to his ageless play than Phil himself.
3. BUBBA ENTERS OFF ANOTHER WIN
The outstanding comeback season of two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson saw its third victory of the season in his last start, a furious rally to pass Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, two weeks ago. His struggles in 2016 took him off the Ryder Cup squad at the last minute, after he had been looking like a shoe-in for much of the first half of the season, and 2017 was even worse, as the 39-year-old bomber just narrowly made the FedExCup Playoffs.
2018 has been a different story, though. Bubba took the Genesis Open back in February, throttled a stacked field for the title at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and then had the victory in Connecticut in his last start. He also posted a T9 at the WGC-Mexico and a T5 at The Masters.
Now ranked 12th in the world, way up from 117th earlier this year, and No. 3 in the FedExCup Standings, it feels fair to say that Bubba has re-taken his seat among the pantheon of current golfing greats.
Bubba is a Florida native, but has made White Sulphur Springs (WV) something of a second home. He owns property at the opulent Greenbrier Sporting Club and has often professed a love of the area. That love is very much mutual, as Watson was a large figure in the humanitarian efforts following the devastating flooding that obliterated the region two years ago.
The community has rebounded exceptionally from its misfortune, and Bubba is one of the many great people that helped make the recovery possible. Needless to say, the crowds will be behind him this week, and would be thrilled to see him emerge as champion on Sunday.
Watson’s history on this course is a little mixed. He finished a disappointing T70 last year, but was T13 in 2015 and T16 in 2014. The Old White TPC is a course that rewards great iron play, and few players have been hitting their irons better this season than Bubba Watson.
4. JOAQUIN’S TIME?
The Greenbrier has been kind to rookie players, with four wins in seven additions coming from the rookie class, including Xander Schauffele last year. It has become the ultimate place for a young player to make their name.
The rookie class set to tee up this week at The Old White TPC is another strong one, but there is one name that stands out most: Joaquin Niemann.
A precocious tee-to-green marvel, the 19-year-old Chilean has been better-than-advertised since turning professional after The Masters, with three top 10s and a T17 among his results in his first seven events. He was solo-sixth at the Valero Texas Open in his first tournament as a professional, and had casual sports fans frantically googling his name when he took the 36-hole lead at The Memorial Tournament, the famous Jack Nicklaus venue that boasts one of the strongest fields of the season.
He might still be a teenager, but he is not playing like one, and he appears prime for the first of what should be many career professional victories.
Helping Niemann’s chances in White Sulphur Springs is the fact that this is one of the few courses on the PGA circuit that he has actually played before. Granted a sponsor’s exemption at last year’s event as an amateur, Joaquin validated that trust with a T29 that included a pair of 68s in the first two rounds, and a field co-low 6-under 64 on Sunday. That finale was enough to ascend him 38 spots up the round 4 leaderboard.
Win No. 1 appears imminent, and those who want to say they saw it would be wise to turn into this week’s coverage of A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
5. OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP BERTHS AT STAKE
A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier is the penultimate event of the PGA’s “Open Championship Qualifying Series.”
With the Open Championship, the third major of the season, set to tee off at Scotland’s famed Carnoustie Golf Links in just two weeks, remaining positions are extremely limited. Fortunately, those in The Greenbrier field will get a great shot, with Open spots being awarded to the top 4 among the final top 12 and ties who have not already qualified.
With next week’s PGA Tour event, the John Deere Classic, only granting one spot at Carnoustie, a sense of urgency should be settling in West Virginia this week.
The following are among the best players not already qualified for The Open Championship:
1. JIM FURYK
The affable 48-year-old has not quite looked his prime form this season, but it does not quite feel right for the man with 23 top-10s in majors to not be in the Carnoustie field. Even struggling the way he has this year, with just one top-10 and $339K in earnings over 11 events, Furyk still contended through three rounds at last month’s U.S. Open, sitting just three strokes out of the lead going into Sunday. He will not overpower any course, but he hits fairways, he hits greens, and he has copious experience dealing with major championship pressure. This will be Furyk’s first go at The Old White TPC since missing the cut in the 2012 edition.
2. J.B. HOLMES
The two-time U.S. Ryder Cupper finished solo-third at The Open Championship just two years ago, but currently has not qualified for Carnoustie. The 36-year-old Kentuckian has struggled for most of the 2018 season, but has found his game as of late, with a T13-3-T2 stretch in three tournaments before missing the cut at last week’s Quicken Loans National. One big factor in Holmes’ favor is that he has played very well at The Greenbrier before. In addition to a third-round 60 at the inaugural 2010 event, he finished T9 just last year.
3. BRIAN GAY
Gay is certainly playing the part of someone who is not done winning on Tour, as he has finished in the top 12 in three of his last five starts, with one of the others being a T20 at the U.S. Open. This is the best the 46-year-old has played since his two-victory 2009 injury. That being said, if he is going to continue his hot streak, he will have to do it at a venue where he has been very, very bad; he has only made the cut once and that was a T72 last year. This will be a classic battle of recent form vs course history.
4. BRANDT SNEDEKER
Snedeker has been a very accomplished PGA golfer, with eight victories and a FedExCup title on his resume, but since missing the second half of last season with an injury, the 37-year-old has just not been able to get his game back to where we are accustomed to seeing it. He has just one top 10 in 18 starts this season, and has struggled to find any consistency. A name frequently near the top of the “Best to Never Win a Major” lists, Snedeker’s major championship window is getting more narrow every year; he cannot afford to be missing majors entirely. He has not played The Greenbrier since a T38 in 2012, but he is undoubtedly one of the most talented players in a relatively weak field.
5. CHARLES HOWELL III
The top-25 machine has finished T26 or better in nine of his last 11 starts, fairly typical for a CHIII season, but the Augusta native is still looking for his first victory since 2007. Despite being No. 55 in the World Rankings, Howell is not yet exempt for Carnoustie, and he has to be anxious to add some flair to a major championship resume that has just one top 10 listed in 43 starts, a T10 at the 2003 PGA Championship. Howell has not done much at The Old White TPC since a T9 at the facile 2010 inaugural event, placing T45 in his most recent attempt last season.