One year after natural disaster, the beloved Greenbrier hosts the PGA Tour once again

One year after natural disaster, the beloved Greenbrier hosts the PGA Tour once again

Mr. Bubba, like so many Southern men before him, likes to get in his truck and drive. He’s a son of the Florida panhandle (as every serious golfhead knows) but he’s drawn to the Greenbrier, the grand hotel in a rugged nook of West Virginia, like a camper to a bonfire. A while back, feeling the urge, he got the kids in their beds, read them their books, and started the 14-hour drive to the resort.

“Don’t drive straight through the night,” warned Bubba’s wise missus, Angie Watson.

The two-time Masters champion found a hotel room in Charlotte, hit the hay, woke up and returned I-77N, bound for his vacation house near the hotel. He and his family spend most of the summer there. Bubba and Angie were there when the storm came a year and a fortnight ago. The 100-year storm, the 1,000-year storm–whatever. A lethal storm. Howard’s Creek rising. A burning house floating down it.

“It was scary, it was depressing,” Watson said in a phone interview. “Where the Greenbrier’s at, it’s just like where I grew up, Milton, Baghdad, Pensacola. Hard-working people who love their families and love their sports. That storm came in and houses were washed away, people lost their belongings, their pets. People lost their lives. Angie was delivering fresh water to people two hours away from the hotel. It was devastating.”

The flood hit a year and a fortnight ago, on June 23. The Greenbrier Classic, scheduled to begin July 7, was canceled two days later. Large parts of the course, called Old White, a picturesque C.B. Macdonald classic, were underwater. The rest of it was in shambles. Nearly two-dozen lives were lost in White Sulphur Springs, where the Greenbrier resides, and in nearby towns. Jim Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier and then a candidate for governor of West Virginia, mourned the loss. He told a reporter, “We’re scarred.”

But by 2017, Justice said in the wake of the storm, the show would go on. Not because a golf tournament is so important, because Lord knows it’s not. But it would be a symbol of renewal. It would show the Mountain State spirit. In the meantime, the vultures were circling, looking for easy pickings on the course, laid out on the soggy fairways like bacon strips in those metal bins at the Marriott breakfast buffets.

Keith Foster, the architect, dropped everything and came in to access the damage, a doctor of golf-coursing responding to a 911 call. His first instinct was to say it could not be done. The golf course could not be reclaimed and restored in one year and open for play for the 2017 tournament. The hotel didn’t even have hot water and locals suddenly rendered homeless were being put up in its plush rooms. The idea of a golf tournament seemed just…remote. But Jim Justice opened his checkbook and prodded Foster. “We just made one decision after another after another on the fly,” Foster said in a recent telephone interview. If you know his name, it might be for the restoration work he has done at Colonial, Southern Hills and Philadelphia Cricket. “We did it the old way, hole by hole. We didn’t get everything done the way we would ultimately like it, but it’s most of the way there.” On the resort guest-Tour player continuum, Foster said he was far, far far on the side of the everyday paying guest, while noting “we have our Bubba tees.”

Before there was Bubba, there was Snead. Sam Snead started playing Old White as a teenager in 1930 and continued to play almost until his death in 2002. Long before Bubba Watson and Tom Watson and Lee Trevino were the Greenbrier’s playing pros, Snead had that job. Justice, now the Democratic governor of a state dominated by the Republican Party, played over 500 rounds with Snead. Snead is to Old White what Bobby Jones is to Augusta National. “If Sam Snead saw this course today, he’d think it was 1938 again,” the Greenbrier’s vice president of golf, Burt Baine, said in a phone interview. That was meant as high praise.

On Monday, Justice, paired with Boo Weekley, played in a pre-tournament pro-am, which they won. You can imagine the hunting-and-fishing talk between shots. But Justice is far more than a good-ole-boy. He is an enormous man with vast coal and farming interests in West Virginia. He is also a high school basketball coach, a former West Virginia junior-golf champion and, Bubba Watson will tell you “a big teddy bear with an enormous heart.”

Since his election, Justice has turned the management of the hotel to his daughter, Dr. Jill Justice, a radiologist. Last year, before the storm, Jim had announced that admission to the golf tournament would be free and had encouraged spectators to bring canned food for needy people as part of program called Neighbors Loving Neighbors. The program took off after the storm. Since then, Jill has run with it.

Among the players in the the field this year are Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson (with his brother Tim caddying for him), Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker and Si Woo Kim. Representing the 50-and-over crowd are Davis Love III, Vijay Singh and John Daly. Danny Lee, two years later, is finally getting the chance to defend his title.

The golf should be good. It should also, Jim Justice was saying the other day, be secondary.

“Aside from losing my parents, that storm was the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life, hands down,” Justice said. “The magnitude of the devastation. What we’ve seen is people rebound. We’ve said, ‘We’ve got to rebuild, we’ve got recover.’ But we should never forget what happened. We should always remember that so many families still have a scar. We all have a scar.

“People said a lot of nice things about what I did after the storm, but, and I mean this with all my soul, it was embarrassing. What I did is exactly what I should have done. We did the things we should have done,” Justice said. He is surely correct. Because of what Jim Justice did, and innumerable others, is why a tournament is being played this week.

“The storm and all that was depressing,” Bubba said the other day. “And the way people came together after it, that was inspiring.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]