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Classic giving Woods a busy summer

After three years of pursuit, Greenbrier resort owner Jim Justice was able to make Tiger Woods' busy summer schedule a bit busier.

With his commitment to The Greenbrier Classic, Woods is planning to play four tournaments in six weekends, bookended by the U.S. Open and the British Open.

How much of coup is this for Justice? Consider this: Woods has not played two tournaments between the two majors since 2001, and has only done it twice since turning pro in 1996.

The U.S. Open runs from June 14-17 at Olympic Club in San Francisco. Two weeks late, Woods will play in his own AT&T Championship at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., and then will make the 248-mile trip to White Sulphur Springs, playing the Classic before heading to the British Open.

At The Greenbrier, he will draw the most attention to the West Virginia sports scene this side of Mountaineer Field, and it doesn't matter that his last three tournaments include two 40th-place finishes and a missed cut.

With 72 career PGA Tour victories and 14 major championships, Woods still transcends the sport. Look for a hyper-increase in attention at the grand resort in small-town White Sulphur Springs.

"Certainly it adds a different light being shined on the property and on the tournament," said Tim McNeely, the Classic's executive tournament director. "I think there's a generic view out there that Tiger is responsible for a 30 to 40 percent increase in attendance, so certainly, he moves the needle.

"He's the most important player in golf."

Justice has pursued Woods relentlessly, mostly through agent Mark Steinberg. Justice has met Woods face-to-face on several occasions, but most of the negotiations have gone through Steinberg and others on "Team Tiger."

"First year, our efforts were in vain. We didn't get to first base," Justice said. "Last year we had a shot [but] Tiger had a conflict with [visiting] his kids, and kids surely come first. We've really just been steady after it, and being Best in Class helps matters."

That was the award bestowed by the Tour, with The Greenbrier Classic honored over the 43 other events.

"Winning Best in Class was huge," Justice said. "He said, 'I don't see how in the world ... if that's the best tournament, Best in Class, I've got to be there.' And another thing, he loves all the traditional, historical aspects [of the course], C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor [course designers], Snead, Hogan, Arnold Palmer getting his first check here.

"It's validation. ... you've got the icon of the world as far as sports. You have the Best in Class [but] you still have people saying, 'Well, we know you had a great tournament in West Virginia, but Tiger Woods didn't come.' "

Woods, 36, is the sport's leading career money winner, earning $96.6 million in his 17 full seasons on the Tour, including three seasons topping $10 million (2005, 2007, 2009). Those numbers don't factor in general inflation from the days of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, but Woods himself helped inflate purses.

To illustrate: When he won his first title in his fifth Tour event after turning pro, the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, that earned him $297,000. The 2012 Greenbrier Classic winner will rake in $1.098 million - and that's not nearly the leading payday on the schedule.

Woods' last major title was the 2008 U.S. Open, which he won despite a torn ligament in his knee and a double stress fracture in his leg. Those injuries have slowed his dominating form, along with the tabloid-caliber scandal emanating from his Thanksgiving 2009 car accident.

With those physical and personal setbacks, he played just 21 tournaments in 2010 and 2011, laying out for long periods. He may have been a lightning rod for criticism, but more than a few players were eager for his return.

Tournaments felt his absence, too. For instance, crowds were down last year at the Memorial Tournament near Columbus, Ohio, the Jack Nicklaus-hosted event that boasts traditionally loaded fields.

During his semi-exile, Woods relinquished his No. 1 world ranking, which he held for 281 consecutive weeks from June 2005 to October 2010. He fell to 21st by the 2011 Greenbrier Classic, and eventually out of the top 50. He didn't regain his footing until last December, when he won the Chevron World Challenge, an unofficial event he hosts that features 18 of the world's best players.

This year, he is attempting a full schedule. Three weeks after a second-place finish at The Honda Classic at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., he finally struck gold at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, near Orlando, Fla. That was his first victory since September 2009.

His performance has been branded "average" in some quarters, and yes, he certainly is not winning once in every 3.37 events, as he did from 1996-2009. But he has climbed back to seventh in the world rankings, is 17th on the season's money list (about $1.85 million), and is 15th in the FedExCup rankings.

Phil Mickelson has committed to return to The Greenbrier, so that brings two of the world's top 10 and probably the two most recognized golf names in America. Mickelson adds "only" 40 Tour titles and four majors.

Those two, the new place on the calendar and resort accommodations not found elsewhere on the Tour could land some other big names.

For instance, Matt Kuchar, who has family from the state, is tentatively planning to play here. Ditto 2007 Masters winner Zach Johnson. The re-emerging Sergio Garcia is expected to play here for the third time, and Greenbrier pro emeritus Tom Watson is expected to take another swing.

But none will require the re-examination of security and media accommodations that comes with a Woods appearance. McNeely calls it a good problem to have.

Justice warns fans to act sooner than later if they want a glimpse.

"The Tour is pretty confident about their statistics - if Tiger comes, you're looking at a potential bump of about 30 percent," Justice said. "We can't handle 30 percent. We just can't."

Reach Doug Smock 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com.

TIGER BY THE NUMBERS

  • Turned pro: 1996
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  • PGA Tour wins: 72
  • First PGA Tour victory: 1996 Las Vegas Invitational (5th pro event)
  • Most recent victory: 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational
  • Top-10 finishes: 170 (in 282 events)
  • Major tournament wins (14): Masters (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005), U.S. Open (2000, 2002, 2008), British Open (2000, 2005, 2006) PGA Championship (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007)
  • Most wins, season: 9, 2000
  • Career earnings: $96,665,592
  • Most money, season: $10,867,052; 2007
  • Current world ranking: 7
  • Weeks ranked No. 1: 623.

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