The day of June 22, 2016 was a fairly typical day in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. The famed Greenbrier Resort, the opulent monolith that the entire region revolves around, was just two weeks away from their seventh installment of The Greenbrier Classic, one of the PGA Tour’s most inimitable events.
Everything was nearly set for the resort to reach full capacity-plus, and accommodate an astronomical legion of fervent golf fans.
Then June 23rd happened.
Flash summer storms are common in this part of West Virginia, but there was nothing typical about what Mother Nature unleashed on that day. In what has been described by experts as a “once in a millennium” event, nearly ten inches of rain bludgeoned the area over a 12-hour span, causing massive, widespread flooding that resulted in the deaths of 23 people and the destruction of hundreds of homes, not to mention the staggering monetary cost of damages. The idyllic mountain sanctuary had been decimated to a barren, post-apocalyptic destruction zone.
Suddenly, golf dropped precipitously down the list of local priorities, and the Greenbrier Classic was cancelled. There was not much of a choice in the matter. Two weeks was nowhere near enough time to transmute the muddy, flood-demolished course back into a first-class venue worthy of the most prestigious golf tour on the planet.
Out of the wreckage though, emerged an inspiring story. The resilient, blue-collar community would go on to shine brightest during their biggest time of need. Help came from everywhere as the country consolidated their resources towards the bucolic, ill-starred section of Appalachia.
One year later, there is still much work to do, but the restoration efforts have been nothing short of incredible, and if all goes according to plan, the 2017 Greenbrier Classic will commence on Thursday.
A field of 156 of the world’s best golfers, highlighted by local humanitarian Bubba Watson, defending champion Danny Lee, and a newly Bones-less Phil Mickelson, will grace one of the most unforgettable and naturally beautiful scenes in professional golf.
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”, is 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 the current position holder, Lee Trevino.
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.
Name: The Old White TPC
Where: White Sulphur Springs, WV
Vitals: 7,287 yards | par 70
Architect: Charles Blair Macdonald
Winning Share: $1,278,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
With last year’s tournament getting cancelled due to severe flooding, the defending champion of the The Greenbrier Classic is 2015 winner Danny Lee.
Lee shot a three-under 67 in the final round, which put him into a four-man playoff with David Hearn, Kevin Kisner, and Robert Streb, the latter of who broke his putter and had to putt with a wedge for a significant part of the final day. Kisner and Streb were eliminated on the first playoff hole, and then a par on the second playoff hole secured Lee’s first career victory.
Other Recent Champions
2014: Angel Cabrera
2013: Jonas Blixt
2012: Ted Potter, Jr
2011: Scott Stallings
2010: Stuart Appleby
Lowest Final Score: 258 (-22) shot by Stuart Appleby in his 2010 victory
Low Round: 59 (Stuart Appleby)
Round 1: 3-6:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 3-6:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 1-2:30 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (CBS)
Round 4: 1-2:30 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (CBS)
Storyline 1: Phil Playing Sans Bones
They were Magic and Kareem. Mantle and Maris. Montana and Rice.
They were Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. John Madden and Pat Summerall.
Heck, some would say they were even Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov.
The transcendent quarter-century partnership that existed between Phil Mickelson and Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay matched up with all of the greatest pairings in sports history. They won 42 times together, and finished in the top 10 of 38 majors, with five of those being victories. They became the gold standard for the player-caddy relationships.
In a golf context, they did not just finish each other’s sentences; they completed each other’s thoughts.
But now, Phil and Bones are no more. Their sudden breakup, which both sides maintain was a mutual decision, was absolutely shocking to the golf world. There are no words to describe how strange it will be to see one without the other. Mickelson’s new permanent caddy has yet to be determined, but for at least the rest of the PGA Tour season, the man on his bag will be someone he undoubtedly has a weaker bond with: his brother, Tim.
The younger Mickelson brother is no stranger to the game; he spent eight years building a prominent golf program at The University of San Diego before becoming the head man at Arizona State for five. He abrogated the latter position in 2016, opting to instead become the agent of his greatest former protégée, Jon Rahm.
The Greenbrier Classic will mark the first tournament of Phil Mickelson’s post-Bones career. The Old White TPC was one of the few courses they couldn’t crack, as Mickelson has missed the cut in all three of his attempts, so far at least one week, Tim might not be overwhelmed by the shadow of the legend who last held his job.
As for Phil himself, he will be coming to West Virginia well-rested. He has not played since a ninth place finish nearly four weeks ago at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. It was his fourth top ten of a season where the 47-year-old has made the cut in all 15 of his starts.
Between his personal made cut streak and his missed cut streak at The Greenbrier, something will have to give. He is struggling a little with his driving accuracy this season, but his short game is still first-class, and at a recently rebuilt course, that attribute is going to be of prime importance.
Storyline 2: Danny Lee Defends
With last year’s Greenbrier Classic being cancelled, 2015 champion Danny Lee continues to be the defending champion. Emerging from a four-man playoff, the win was the first, and still only, PGA Tour victory of the 26-year-old from New Zealand.
It is a mild upset that Lee has not won a second time in the past two years, but he has been close several times, most notably at the 2015 Tour Championship where he finished runner-up. He has run hot and cold since, with his game trending positively as of late.
Since a disastrous 77-78 start at THE PLAYERS where he (obviously) missed the cut, he has three finishes inside the top six in six starts, including a T3 at the Travelers Championship just two weeks ago. All signs point to Lee being ready to win again soon.
In his successful 2015 season, Lee finished ranked 24th on Tour in strokes gained: putting, but tumbled inexplicably to 135th last year. In 2017, his putting stroke has come back, and he is again ranked 24th. He has been above average off the tees and on his approaches this season, but is having a terrible season around the greens.
Lee ranks 164th in scrambling, so hitting greens might be of extra importance for Lee this week. He hit 51 of 72 greens in regulation this past weekend at the Quicken Loans National, which ranked fourth in the field, certainly an encouraging sign.
Storyline 3: Two Davis Loves In The Field
While many are lamenting the unfortunate relationship status update of Phil Mickelson and Jim ‘Bones’ MacKay, the dynamic of 2017 Hall of Fame Inductee Davis Love III and his 24-year-old son, Davis ‘Dru’ Love IV will see a unique twist this week.
For the first time, the two Love’s will be in direct competition in a PGA Tour event, as both are on in the field. For Davis III, it will be PGA start #741, while for Dru, it will be start #3.
It is a very different situation than the two experienced at the U.S. Open last month, where the younger Love made the field at Erin Hills through sectional qualifying, with the older Love serving as his caddy. They got off to an excellent start, especially given Dru’s absence of professional golf success, playing the first round in one-under 71. Unfortunately, they were unable to stick around for the weekend, as a four bogeys in five holes midround stretch on Friday lead to a three-over 75. They missed the cut by a single stroke.
The elder Love is having a season that is no doubt frustrating for a 21-time Tour winner. In seven events, Davis III has made just two cuts, finishing T41 and T61 in those two tournaments respectively. In 2016, Love III started his season 10 for 10 in cuts made, very impressive for a player with Champions Tour eligibility, but did not make the weekend in any of his five starts after that, and those struggles appear to have carried over into 2017. His best Greenbrier finish was a T17 in the 2012 event.
Storyline 4: Super Amateur Hour
Among non-majors the field for The Greenbrier Classic may have the most impressive groups of amateurs we have seen this year, headlined by arguably the best two in the world.
World No. 1 amateur Joaquin Niemann, an 18-year-old from Chile, who is set to play at South Florida this fall, will join Ole Miss star and recent NCAA individual champion Braden Thornberry this week in West Virginia. This will be the first time the two will be in the field for the same professional tournament.
Both Niemann and Thornberry have played in a recent PGA tournament. Niemann qualified for the U.S. Open via qualifying, but missed the cut after shooting 74-75. He was accurate off the tees, hitting 19 of 28 fairways, and with his irons, hitting 24/36 greens, but was a disaster on the greens.
Thornberry made out much better in his start, albeit in a much-lower profile event. The 20-year-old shot a final round 65 in Memphis to finish T4 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, a phenomenal debut performance.
Other Notables in the Field
The man who shot a final round 59 in the inaugural 2010 tournament (the only 59 in PGA Tour history shot in a round 4) needed a sponsor’s exemption to get into this year’s field.
The 46-year-old has made just one cut in 11 events this season, a 74th place finish at the Sanderson Farms Championship in October, and even in that event, three of his four rounds were a 74 or worse. He has missed the cut in each one of his four Greenbrier Classic starts since that win.
This tournament has been a collection of near-misses for the former major champion. He held leads in 2011, 2012, and 2013, but had trouble finishing in each.
The 2012 event was especially frustrating for him as he started 65-66-65 to take the 54-hole lead, but a faded to a T7 finish after a final round 73. He was the only one in the top 26 of the final leaderboard to shoot over par on Sunday. He has not won a tournament since 2014, but has several good finishes this season, including two top 10s in his last four starts.
It has been a quiet season for the 2016 PGA Championship winner, with just one top 10 in 2017. He has a T56 and two missed cuts in his last three tournaments, leaving at +6 in all three, but he has played well at the Old White in the past, finishing T4 in both 2010 and 2011, along with a runner-up finish in 2013.
Walker’s putting has fallen off considerably this season, as he currently ranks 81st in strokes gained: putting, just two years after he was #2 on Tour in that same stat.
The other sponsor’s exemption in this tournament, Daly has missed his last several Champions Tour starts, including last week’s Senior U.S. Open with a shoulder injury.
Even if he’s 100%, expectations are very low for the 51-year-old bomber, who has made just one cut in 13 events since the start of 2015, but as always, Daly will be one of the biggest draws in the field. He does have a win on The Champions Tour this season, taking the Insperity Invitational in early May.
Ted Potter Jr
The surprise 2012 champion, who was ranked No. 218 in the world at the time, has been limited to just three starts on the PGA Tour since 2014. Most of that absence was due to a freak ankle injury off the course at the 2014 RBC Canadian Open, which cost him two years of golf.
However, Potter is finally showing signs of turning his career back around, netting five top tens in 13 Web.com Tour events this season. At No. 4 on the current Web.com Tour money list, Potter stands a great chance of getting his PGA Tour card back in the near future. A second Greenbrier victory would get him there much quicker.
The 33-year-old Kisner is the midst of his finest season on Tour, posting a win and two runner-ups since March, three of his six top 10s on the season. Kisner has shown few weaknesses this season, as he currently currently ranks inside the top 41 in every strokes gained statistic.
He disappointed at the U.S. Open in his last start, but has been in tremendous recent form otherwise. Kisner was one of the runner-ups in the last Greenbrier Classic, falling just short in a four-man playoff.
Watson is one of the emotional favorites in White Sulphur Springs. He owns property at the Greenbrier Sporting Club and donated heavily to the flood relief efforts in 2016. He was actually in the area when the devastating floods occurred, using social media to make the golf world aware of how dire the situation was.
Watson has been all or nothing over the past three months, mixing three top 10s with four missed cuts in his last seven starts. Watson has shot under par in each of the 12 rounds he has played at Old White TPC, with a high finish of T13 in the 2015 event.