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A little rain must pour

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - This nook of West Virginia hasn't received the downpours that have hit the Kanawha Valley and other areas, but rain has been a daily event in this scenic valley.

And that will play a considerable role in the Greenbrier Classic, which begins at 7 a.m. today.

That's when 154 pros and two amateurs will take on the Old White TPC course, which at 99 years is one of the oldest tracks they will play.

The first inclination is to predict a 20-under par winning score, what with the soft greens and sticky fairways. Potentially heavy rain was expected overnight, with chances of showers and thunderstorms throughout the weekend.

But the consensus among players seems to be this: The course will remain in fantastic shape, no matter what.

"The greens, fairways, rough, everything is in really good shape," said Phil Mickelson. "It's a little soft with the rain, but as the weather gets nice and sunny on the weekend, it should be perfect. It's in fabulous shape, it drains really well and I think we're all looking forward to a fun event."

Mickelson is back to headline what can best be described as an entertaining field, particularly with the addition of big-hitting Bubba Watson.

There are two world top-10 players, Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen, five more within the top 30 and four more in the top 50. In the FedExCup standings, there are 13 of the top 30, with many others trying to crack that level.

There are top-shelf newcomers such as Bubba Watson and under-the-radar Swede Peter Hanson. There are perennial Classic contenders such as Webb Simpson, Jimmy Walker and Brendon de Jonge, as well as quick-rising stars such as Billy Horschel and Jordan Spieth.

All three defending champions are here: the ultra-streaky Scott Stallings, second-year man Ted Potter Jr. and veteran Stuart Appleby. There is the college player of the year in Michael Kim and the 13-time West Virginia Amateur champion, Pat Carter.

There is the old guard, 63-year-old Greenbrier pro emeritus Tom Watson.

And there are rookies all around, as young as just-turned-18 Si Woo Kim. They are trying to extend the Classic's rookie-winner streak to three years.

But the top storyline probably is Mickelson, who is a 12-1 favorite on TheSpread.com. Remember, he hasn't made the cut in two Classics, failing to break the par 70 in all four of his rounds. He suffered two double bogeys in 2012, on the fifth and 15th holes.

Do the state's golf fans get good Lefty or not-so-good Lefty?

"I was asking Jim [Justice] a lot of questions about how he plays this course," Mickelson said Wednesday after his pro-am round with the resort's owner. "He's played here over 500 times, and I just wanted to hear where he plays to given certain pin positions, where he plays off the tee - because I've been kind of guessing my way and I've been making some mistakes that have cost me one, two shots a hole at times, and I've got to put an end to it.

"It's a very straightforward test but strategically, you have to have an idea what you want to do."

You'll hear Old White described in similar terms. Ask Bubba Watson.

"I love old-school golf," he said. "I don't see any goofy holes or anything like that; it's just a straightforward golf course. You've got to play your strategies and you've got to hit fairways."

A dampened rough might negate the receptive greens, which are still rolling at 101/2-11 on the Stimpmeter. The longer par-4s, such as the second hole, might play even longer with a roll.

And then the rain just might slack off after today, making for firm greens all over again. That sort of happened last year, when the course dried out after the super-derecho and two thunderstorms during tournament week.

No matter the weather, Tom Watson seems to know the winning formula. Remember, he has played the course a few times.

"If [many] players are playing well, the guys who hit the ball high - I like that on this course," he said. "The greens still, even though they are soft, they're hard and there is a firmness to it, the ball will skid and bounce, maybe skid when it's damp.

"When the greens were changed three years ago, they really were hard, firm, and stopping the ball was a chore. And the guys that hit the ball high could stop it.

"Unfortunately, there are about 50 guys that hit the ball high, and I can't pick one. That's the element you need, height."

Somebody will reach new heights this week, and the 72-hole quest begins today.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

Today's schedule

At Old White TPC

White Sulphur Springs

  • Gates open, 7 a.m.
  • Classic first round, 7 a.m.
  • Concert featuring Kenny Chesney, 8:30 p.m.
  • Television schedule: Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m.
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