WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - Governors, celebrities and hundreds of the well-heeled have visited the Greenbrier Classic, but golfing royalty paid the venerable Old White Course a visit Thursday.
Arnold Palmer, the man widely credited with putting the PGA Tour on the map in the late 1950s and 1960s, flew into Greenbrier County in the morning and was carted around the course with his daughter. He was eager to get out of the cart, flash a smile and sign autographs for anybody who approached.
It was a time warp of sorts for the 80-year-old Pennsylvanian - grandson Sam Saunders is playing professionally on the stomping grounds of the late Sam Snead.
Old White carries a special place in Palmer's heart, and golf history.
"I had a good start here," Palmer said. "I started in 1955 and got enough money to play the tour."
That came at the Sam Snead Festival. Palmer won the Canadian and Colombian opens that year, a few more tournaments in 1957 and the first of his four Masters in 1958. He won 62 times on the PGA Tour, including seven majors.
While signing autographs beside the seventh fairway, Saunders was at 2 under par, a good enough start. But that didn't last, as he three-putted the eighth for a bogey, bogeyed No. 9, suffered a triple bogey on the difficult 13th and a double bogey on the not-so-difficult 17th.
That left him with a 3-over 73, meaning he may need a monster second round today just to make the cut.
"I played awful," he said. "Triple, a double, it's just pretty bad. It's not like I have to go out there and shoot 10 under [today]. If I go out there and play the way I should, I'll make the cut."
Saunders said he is out of sponsor's exemptions for the PGA Tour, and has two Nationwide Tour stops on his schedule. After that, barring a victory or large payday, is "Q school" in the fall.
But he does have the frequent encouragement from his legendary - and proud - grandpa.
"That's what he's wanted to do all his life, and now he's got a chance to do it," Palmer said. "We need him to get playing good. You know, he's not exempt and he's got to rely on sponsor's exemptions or qualifying, so it's a limited situation right now."
Let the games begin
The tournament couldn't start without a little show from Jim Justice, the man who bought The Greenbrier and then brought in the PGA Tour.
He arranged a first-tee ceremony, complete with a fife and drum corps (courtesy of Marshall University) playing the national anthem, with cannon blasts in the background. Casino waitresses were donning Scarlett O'Hara dresses, and Justice brought along uniformed members of his girls basketball team from Greenbrier East High School.
Three minutes before Tim Herron struck the first shot, Justice took his ceremonial first swing. He acquitted himself well, knocking the ball 200 yards or so down the middle.
On that shot, one of the caddies remarked, "Mr. Justice, just leave that down there for my guy, OK?"
Pocketful of miracles
When Zimbabwean Brendon de Jonge turned in his 65, he thought he left a few strokes on the course, so to speak.
But the Virginia Tech alumnus also knew the breaks evened out. For instance, he birdied the ninth hole - his last, as he teed off on No. 10 - when his approach went left but kicked off a small elevation and banked into prime position.
Three holes earlier, de Jonge bogeyed, but that could have been worse. His errant tee shot bounced into the pants pocket of one of the red-shirted marshals.
"Definitely the first time that's ever happened [to me]," de Jonge said. "I ended up having a pretty clear shot. It was a good break."
So what happens when a dimpled ball gets cornered in a pocket? Tony Wallin, one of the rules officials on the course, can't remember seeing it happen, but knows how to handle it.
"Fortunately, the marshal had good sense to stand still," he said. "I put an antenna at the spot he was standing, and [de Jonge] got a drop."
Wallin has other offbeat, sometimes embarrassing, stories. He said this year alone, he has seen three shots rest in patrons' laps and one go down a woman's bra. That brings an inevitable joke along these lines: "The golfer is required to retrieve his ball, when possible."