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Taking an early look at the Greenbrier Classic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- NOT TO be a worrywart, but I have noticed a few parallels to last year in regard to the Greenbrier Classic.

With five weeks until the fourth edition of this state's PGA Tour event, I don't see some things we were seeing at this time last year.

No Phil Mickelson commitment. No bracing for a visit from Tiger Woods. Two concerts instead of three. No advisories that ticket sales could be cut off in advance. No Tim McNeely as tournament director.

All minor details. OK, that McNeely thing was a substantial development, but that pales to previous obstacles.

A year ago, the resort staff, volunteers and fans picked themselves off the deck from that heinous derecho to roll out the welcome mat for the PGA Tour. We showed our resilience and did so in style.

One hopes this state can shine again in less taxing circumstances.

Monte Ortel, the Classic's new director, surely isn't worried. As McNeely's right-hand man for three years and director of the former Turning Stone Resort Championship before that, he was groomed for this moment.

With nearly two dozen commitments in the bag, Ortel is hitting the pedal even harder in recruiting. This week is a good one to do it - today, he begins a three-day visit to the Memorial Tournament, that always-stacked invitational north of Columbus. And with the Memorial hosting the President's Cup matches in October, no big-name Americans will skip it.

That could trigger a wave of good Classic commitments, with another coming two weeks later, after the U.S. Open. After that, there are roughly 12 days before the June 28 deadline for entry, and we saw some impressive late arrivals a year ago.

I like the list of 23 commitments recently released. There are some sneaky good players, such as:

  • Webb Simpson: The 2012 U.S. Open winner was a given, having become an ambassador to the Greenbrier. He has posted top-10 finishes in the last two Classics, with a combined plus-6 score on the Sunday back nine keeping him from winning those.
  • "Webb Simpson's a standup guy, he's great in the community and he's a fantastic player," Ortel said. "The Greenbrier having him as an ambassador for them throughout the year is fantastic."

    Simpson has dropped from fifth in the world a year ago to 16th, but that's still not shabby. He has three top-6 finishes, including a playoff loss to Graeme McDowell at the Heritage in South Carolina.

  • Bo Van Pelt - He would be a Classic first-timer and a pretty good "get." Ranked 26th in the world, he has won just one Tour event, but had 49 top-10s and 113 top-25s in 330 events before the Colonial. He was second in last year's AT&T National, but skipped the next two tournaments and missed the cut at the British.
  • Here, the calendar may have favored the Classic.

  • Robert Garrigus - He was an afterthought when he missed the cut at the 2010 Classic, but won the season-ending Children's Miracle Network Classic that fall and has since risen inside the world top 40. And get this: In a time when long "belly" putters have been sentenced to death row, Garrigus uses one of the smallest clubs - 28.5 inches long.
  • Freddie Jacobson - Much like three-time Classic entrant Carl Pettersson, Jacobson is a Swede who plays almost entirely state-side - but he has yet to play in this state.  Eight top-25 finishes and three top-10s in 10 starts has him back in the world top 50.
  • There are a few who have played here multiple times and have risen up the charts along the way, including D.A. Points and John Senden. Points, the 2004 Pete Dye West Virginia Classic champion, has won this year and has broken into the world top 50; Senden finished in the FedExCup top 30 last year.

    Past champs Stuart Appleby and Scott Stallings, who owns a second Tour win, plan to be back. Charlie Beljan, whose young career has been quite colorful, ought to come here strapped to the wing of a biplane (that's actually on his "bucket list").

    Since Ben Crane finished 17th here in 2010, he has appeared in the hilarious 2011  "Golf Boys" video. If he could drag his three other conspirators here, that would be a coup.

    Those are Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler and ... one Bubba Watson.

    What about some of the other big sluggers, such as Mickelson? And what about that Tiger guy?

    The conventional wisdom is Woods will play just one of the four tournaments between the U.S. and British opens - his own AT&T National in Bethesda, Md., the week before the Classic. But resort owner Jim Justice bucked (in more than one sense) the conventional wisdom last year.

    "We always think we have a shot at everybody," Ortel said. "We pride ourselves on putting on if not the best, one of the best PGA Tour events on the tour schedule. We position ourselves not with only in the players' minds, but with the sponsors and spectators of a must-attend event no matter what category you fall into.

    "So, specifically with Tiger, we continue to talk with him and we continue to make him aware we would like him to attend the Greenbrier Classic. Everything is positive. I can't say he'll be here this year or he won't be here this year at this point, but it's still nice to have that positive conversation with him at this point."

    Here's something else positive: The course should be in even better shape. Weather permitting, expect the greens at the Old White TPC to roll a lot faster.

    Woods said he had trouble adjusting to slower greens during his visit, and there was plenty of reason for such a slowdown: That derecho and subsequent storms drenched the course, and the monumental cleanup diverted attention from advanced greenskeeping.

    A month before, those greens rolled like tabletops. Afterward, at the West Virginia Amateur, maybe even faster.

    "This year, the feedback we're getting from the agronomy teams from the Tour, and also from [director of grounds] Kelly Shumate was the conditioning this year is the best it's ever been," Ortel said. "So I'm excited about the way it's going to play and the conditioning this year - hard and fast, great greens.

    "This is the third season of the new greens. It's playing fantastic; it's looks great, too."

    Old White looked great last year. It will look great next year, at age 100.

    Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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