Mickelson, Watson headline Greenbrier Classic at family-friendly resort

Mickelson, Watson headline Greenbrier Classic at family-friendly resort

Phil Mickelson returns to action this week after tying for second at the British Open.
Paul Childs/Zuma Press

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The Black Eyed Peas have played the World Cup and the Super Bowl, and on Friday the supergroup will play the second-year Greenbrier Classic in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.

Phil Mickelson is here, too.

"The Black Eyed Peas were a lot tougher [to get] than Phil," Greenbrier owner and chairman Jim Justice said with a laugh Tuesday.

Like many, Mickelson was drawn to the Greenbrier for its reputation as a family-friendly resort. Justice said a member of Mickelson's inner circle visited the resort over the winter, which led to a momentous phone call from the four-time major winner's longtime manager Steve Loy.

"My dad used to say, 'How you build a road is three things: drainage, drainage, drainage,'" Justice said. "Steve Loy told me, 'The reason we're coming is three things: family, family, family.'"

Guests have been coming to the Greenbrier since 1778. It's a National Historic Landmark that has three golf courses, clay tennis courts — could that be what attracted Sergio Garcia? — an off-road driving school, skeet shooting, indoor and outdoor pools, croquet, mountain biking, falconry … the list goes on.

"My kids are already making lists of all the things they want to do while we're there, even though I'll be working," Mickelson said in the spring. (He is scheduled to give a press conference after his pro-am round Wednesday.)

"I heard a lot of great comments about last year's event," he added, "so I'm really looking forward to playing and relaxing with my family."

Among the curiosities here is the resort's famous, 112,544 square-foot hideout commonly called "The Bunker," which was built for Congress during the Cold War in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington. It was top secret for 30 years and was never activated, but it now sees plenty of traffic from tour groups. Mickelson said he planned on visiting the cavernous, historic hiding place.

The intangibles are what make this tournament interesting. One of the first golfers to play the Old White TPC, in April 1914, was President Woodrow Wilson. Still, the intangibles can't completely hide the fact that the Greenbrier Classic will feature only three of the top 40 players in the world, and only two of the top 20 (sixth-ranked Mickelson and 18th-ranked Retief Goosen). The Greenbrier has Will Strickler but not Steve Stricker; Richard S. Johnson but not Dustin Johnson; Joe Ogilvie but not Geoff Ogilvy. Officials hope the tournament will get new dates in 2012, over the Fourth of July weekend, which would dramatically improve its appeal.

Tom Watson, the club's second Golf Professional Emeritus after Sam Snead, will make his first start in the tournament this week, even though it will be played opposite the U.S. Senior Open at Inverness. Watson, 61, who tied for 22nd place at the British Open at Royal St. George's earlier this month, said he felt so bad about missing last year's inaugural Greenbrier — he finished fifth in the U.S. Senior Open and "felt crummy" about missing Greenbrier — he committed early this year.

He and Mickelson, who each have 39 PGA Tour victories, are expected to be paired with defending champion Stuart Appleby on Thursday and Friday.

"There's not going to be any 59s shot this year," Watson said.

Appleby's triumphant final round last year was one of just five sub-60 scores in the history of the PGA Tour, but this is not the same Greenbrier. The 1914 Charles Blair McDonald design was restored to its original design by Lester George, who added 243 yards to the now 7,274-yard track.

And that's not even what makes the course so much more difficult.

"The greens are a lot harder— they're like this," Watson said while knocking his fist on the tabletop. "The ball doesn't stop."

All greens were re-seeded and many were re-contoured. George pinched some fairways and added new tee boxes. The changes, in addition to fairways made soggy by Monday's rain, made for a stiffer test in Tuesday practice rounds, although Watson crowed about winning $50 in an old-vs.-young match in which he and Lee Janzen beat D.J. Trahan and Garrett Willis.

Appleby, who is languishing at 109th in the FedEx Cup standings after making just eight cuts in 20 starts in 2011, said any score under 65 would qualify as a remarkable round of golf now that the course has been toughened.

"You get into the 20s under par [over four rounds] and you've got a fairly easy pitch-and-putt golf course," said Appleby, whose 22-under-par final score in 2010 was one better than Jeff Overton. "I don't think we'll be anywhere near that now."

Short Game
Sean O'Hair, who won the Canadian Open on Sunday, has withdrawn from the Greenbrier. He's been replaced by Chris Tidland. … Phil Mickelson would go to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings with a win. … Greenbrier marks the last chance for players to get into the top 50 in the world rankings and qualify for next week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Ryan Palmer is 52nd and Webb Simpson is 53rd. Both are here this week. This week also marks the last chance for players to get into the upcoming PGA Championship by cracking the top 70 earners from the 2010 WGC-Bridgestone through the 2011 Greenbrier.


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