If you’re a PGA Tour player in need of a 2018 win, it’s time to head for the hills.
The hills of West Virginia, to be precise, where The Greenbrier Resort is one of the state’s best-known landmarks. The Tour returns there again this week for the playing of an event previously known as The Greenbrier Classic, but now called A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
As one of the three PGA Tour events that fall between the popular Travelers Championship and the British Open, which also run parallel with the European Tour’s three-week stretch of elite Rolex Series events, the field in White Sulphur Springs is weak by Tour standards – generally what you’ll find in the wrap around season.
The field this week includes just two players in the top 20 of the Official World Golf Rankings – No. 12 Bubba Watson and No. 20 Phil Mickelson, and just eight in the top 50.
Entering off a win at the Travelers, Watson, a summertime resident at The Greenbrier, is viewed by many as the favorite, alongside fellow lefty legend Mickelson, who will be teeing it up for the first time since the U.S. Open controversy.
The reigning PLAYERS Champion, No. 21 Webb Simpson, will be another marquee name, as will No. 24 Xander Schauffele, who returns to defend his maiden PGA Tour title.
Here are additional details about what to watch for at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
Tournament: A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier
Dates: July 5-8, 2018
Where: White Sulphur Springs, W.V.
Course: The Old White TPC, The Greenbrier Resort
Distance: Par 70, 7,286 yards
Architect: Charles Blair Macdonald
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,314,000
Defending Champion: Xander Schauffele
Marquee Players: Schauffele, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson, Brian Harman, Tony Finau, Kevin Kisner, Russell Henley, Jimmy Walker, Patton Kizzire, Aaron Wise, Austin Cook, Ryan Armour
TV AND ONLINE
Round 1: Thu 3:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Round 2: Fri 3:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Round 3: Sat 1-2:45 pm (GOLF), 3-6:00 pm (CBS)
Round 4: Sun 1-2:45 pm (GOLF), 3-6:00 pm (CBS)
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While the Greenbrier Classic is a young tournament, having just teed off for the first time in 2010, the famed resort and its crown jewel, The Old White TPC course, are embedded in deep, rich history.
The Old White, one of five immaculate courses at “America’s Resort” and a Charles Blair Macdonald design, is the most famous of the group. The resort has hosted both the Ryder Cup (1979) and Solheim Cup (1994) in the past, and boasts the legendary Sam Snead as one of its past golf professionals.
Snead came back to White Sulphur Springs in 1994 to become their honorary “Professional Emeritus,” with Tom Watson taking over the role from 2005-2015, and then passing the torch to Lee Trevino until earlier this year. The title is currently unoccupied.
The PGA Tour was brought to The Greenbrier as one of the first sage business moves of CEO/local hero/current Governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, who bought the resort in 2009 as it was on the brink of a financial cataclysm.
While the inaugural 2010 event was a rousing success in terms of attention, hospitality, and revenue, The Greenbrier vastly underestimated how easy The Old White would play to a field of the world’s best. The first champion, Stuart Appleby, finished the tournament at an eye-popping 258, including a final round 59, the fifth time that magic number had been reached on the PGA Tour.
In addition to Appleby’s historically great round, the 2010 edition also surrendered a 60 (J.B. Holmes), a 61 (D.A. Points), a 62 (Jeff Overton), and an unbelievable 10 63s. Worried about building an undesirable reputation of being an easy course, The Greenbrier made The Old White, which became a TPC that year, much more difficult in 2011.
The changes seemed to work as the 2011 champion (Scott Stallings), finished the tournament at 10-under, a number that 44 golfers had eclipsed the year prior. The next four Greenbrier Classics yielded a champion that finished either -16 (2012, 2014) or -13 (2013, 2015). The 2012 event even achieved a difficulty milestone: it became the first tournament where both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson missed the cut.
The course and community are now two years removed from a historic flash-flooding event that came just two weeks prior to the 2016 edition of the event. An estimated 10 inches of rain in 12 hours turned Greenbrier and the surrounding area from immaculate conditions into a disaster zone, with hundreds of homes destroyed or damaged and 23 lives lost. With a year of hard work, the venue was restored in time for a return of the Tour last July, with conditions and scoring at much the same level of excellence that Greenbrier featured prior to the flood.
HISTORY: TOURNAMENT NAMES
2018: A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier
2010-17: The Greenbrier Classic
HISTORY: RECENT WINNERS
2017: Xander Schauffele (-14)
2016: (Event canceled, floods)
2015: Danny Lee (-13)
2014: Angel Cabrera (-16)
2013: Jonas Blixt (-13)
2012: Ted Potter Jr. (-16)
2011: Scott Stallings (-10)
258 (-22) – Stuart Appleby (2010)
Coming into last year, all six previous editions of the Greenbrier Classic featured a come-from-behind champion.
The 2017 finish made that 7-for-7.
Xander Schauffele, who started the day three shots behind 54-hole leader Sebastian Munoz, posted a final-round 3-under 67, highlighted by a near-perfect performance on the 18th hole.
Standing on the final tee box tied for the lead, Schauffele hit an incredible wedge shot on the 161-yard par 3, the only closing par 3 on Tour, ending up just three feet from the hole. The rookie then calmly made the short putt for birdie to secure a one-stroke victory over Robert Streb.
The Greenbrier Classic has yielded a few surprise winners in its short history, but after his impressive T5 effort at The U.S. Open in the month prior to last year’s event, Schauffele is not exactly in the same category as past winners such as Scott Stallings and Ted Potter, Jr.
Schauffele’s win does, however, mark the fourth time in just seven years that the champion has been a first-timer.
Schauffele’s maiden victory, however, still made him only the second-biggest winner of the week. The No. 1 winner was The Greenbrier Classic, and the entire community of White Sulphur Springs, W.V., for being able to host the tournament, just one year after devastating floods forced the cancellation of the 2016 event.
FINAL TOP 5
1. Xander Schauffele -14
2. Robert Streb -13
3. Jamie Lovemark -12
3. Sebastian Munoz -12
5. Russell Henley -11
5. Kelly Kraft -11
Week-to-week consistency has never been a hallmark of Bubba Watson’s game, but he’s been about as good on that count during the 2017-18 PGA Tour season as he has in any of his previous 12 years as a Tour player. He’s combined a third-place ranking in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee with a seventh-place showing in Greens in Regulation as a formula for cashing in, when his putter cooperates. Even when it doesn’t, he’s managed to contain the damage, missing just two cuts while recording 10 top 25 finishes in just 15 starts.
Watson’s three victories this year are one more than anyone else on the Tour at this point, and are already a career-high for any single season. If he makes additional noise in the closing months of the season, he could very well be a top choice for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors, an accolade which thus far has eluded him in his career.
That’s the upside. The downside for Bubba fans this week is that, despite his close relationship with The Greenbrier, he’s yet to score a top 10 finish in this event. He has posted 14 rounds in the 60s out of 16 previous rounds played in this event, and that’s an important indicator — no previous champion here has ever had a round in the 70s in his total for the week.
Phil Mickelson has more than a little in common with Bubba, and we’re talking more than just the fact that they approach the ball from the left side. Like Bubba, he can get on sizzling scoring streaks. They both can create buzz among the fans. Phil has also got a fondness for The Greenbrier, having been named PGA Tour Ambassador for the resort during the 2016 flood disaster — Mickelson donated $100,000 to relief efforts, while Watson pledged $250,000 for the same causes.
Also like Bubba, though, Phil has never really been a threat to win in four previous visits, although his tie for 20th last year was his best showing yet. At age 48, Mickelson is having one of the most impressive seasons in Tour history for a player his age, with a victory earlier in the year at the WGC-Mexico Championship to go along with a second-place tie at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and a third-place tie at the Safeway Open. He has six top 10 finishes in all, and ranks eighth in the FedEx Cup standings for the year. This week will be his first start since a tie for 48th at the U.S. Open.
It’s been less than two months since Webb Simpson, the world’s No. 21 player, put on a putting clinic in winning THE PLAYERS Championship, ranking only behind his 2012 U.S. Open title as the second-most impressive victory of his career. Since then, he’s had two missed cuts, but they sandwiched a solid tie for 10th at the U.S. Open. Perhaps most relevantly, Simpson has a history of success at Greenbrier, placing in the top 10 three times in seven appearances.
World No. 31 Tony Finau is having his best year yet on Tour, including a tie for 10th at The Masters, a tie for 13th at The Memorial and, most recently, a solo fifth showing at the U.S. Open. He’s played this event two previous times, placing in a tie for 13th in 2015 and improving to a tie for seventh last year.
Xander Schauffele hasn’t exactly hit a sophomore slump — he’s still ranked No. 24 in the world, just two slots back of the career-best ranking he earned after a top 10 finish earlier this year at the Genesis Open. But the winner’s circle has proven elusive for last year’s champion of not just this event but also the season-ending Tour Championship.
On the plus side, he’s shown he has a lot of game with a tie for second at THE PLAYERS and a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open. Raising questions are the missed cuts he’s posted in the three other official events he’s played in the last two months. Could a return to The Greenbrier help him return to 2017 form?
Former world No. 1 amateur Joaquin Niemann of Chile turned pro this spring, but played last year’s event at Greenbrier as an amateur, so he’ll have familiarity with the course. He posted a tie for 29th. He’s continued to flash the potential that most believe he has in the last two months, with three strong showings in his last four starts — a tie for eight at the Fort Worth Invitational, a tie for sixth at The Memorial and a tie for 17th at last week’s Quicken Loans National.
He’ll have company in the promising young player department in Norman Xiong, who will be making his pro debut this week. Xiong earned both the Haskins and Nicklaus awards playing for the University of Oregon this past season, making him the top golfer in the NCAA Division 1 ranks.
Finally, don’t totally overlook Danny Lee, the New Zealander who was the 2015 champion of this event. Lee, ranked as high as 34th in the world in 2016, now is down at No. 141, but has recently shown signs of getting back on track.
Since May, Lee’s posted a tie for seventh at THE PLAYERS, a tie for 14th at the Fort Worth Invitational and a tie for 15th at the Travelers Championship. With his previous victory followed by a tie for ninth at last year’s Greenbrier event, a top 10 showing this week would not be a total surprise.
Credits: PGA Tour Media, Getty Images