Old White's 'Golden Age' (VIDEO)
"It's like, I guess, akin to one of your children being named Miss America. Everyone's going to be looking at her for a week and everybody's going to get to know her," said golf course architect Lester George, standing last Friday near the first hole where it all begins.
For George and his Richmond-based firm, George Golf Design Inc., it all began when his firm was called on a decade ago to do an Old White makeover. It was no small task.
The Old White was originally designed by Charles B. MacDonald, who built the first 18-hole golf course in the United States and is considered the father of American golf architecture.
"It was built in 1914 and, when we came here, we were asked what we would do to the golf course to get it up to modern standards," recalled George. His firm thought it would instead be a wonderful opportunity to take the course back to what it was like from 1914 to 1929.
"We looked at a lot of aerial photographs, we looked at a lot of ground shots. We went to the owners at the time and said we think you ought to go and do a restoration, not a new course," said George. "They embraced the plan. And here we are eight years later and we get to shine a spotlight on some golden age architecture."
His company began the restoration in 2002, working mostly in wintertime, and opened the restored Old White in 2006. What changed? A lot.
"All of the greens had been lost to time -- the original Macdonald features like the Biarritz green, the 3rd hole, with the big dip in it. The 18th green here with the horseshoe contour -- that was original and had been lost. A lot of the strategy was gone. The golf course had just been diluted down to a basically an 80-year-old golf course without the original design intent or character."
Is the restored Old White a tougher course?
"Well, actually it's a wider golf course than it was when I first got here because of the removal of trees and the reinstatement of some of the strategies and widths of fairways," George said.
"The green complexes are a little bit more interesting now and have some contours in them that make it a little bit more challenging to hit the right spot in the green. Of course, the bunkers are deeper and steeper than they were when I got here, but not what they were in the '20s.
"Probably, all in all, I think it went up in difficulty a little bit. But it's probably gone up in fun factor, too."
The Old White got its makeover just a few years before Jim Justice and his millions of dollars enabled a makeover of the ailing Greenbrier Resort's overall fortunes, including the much-heralded arrival of the PGA Tour.
When the tour chose the Old White as its venue, the first thing tour officials did was go around with George to see if any changes were needed specific to a PGA event and its long-ball golfers. Indeed, the changes included lengthening the course from 6,866 to 7,031 yards.
The historic renovation and PGA Tour changes are going to make for some impressive golf in the heart of the Mountain State, George said.
"There are only two par 5s and they're both on the back 9, so we think from [the 12th hole] in it's going to be an opportunity to make up a lot of shots and have a lot of excitement.
"I think the players are just going to overwhelmingly like the golf course because they don't get to play a golf course like this very often. This is the oldest golf course they'll play on tour."
George has played the course himself maybe a half-dozen times. His best score?
"I've stopped counting," he says, diplomatically. "I've had days when it treated me like I think it should, and I've had days when it treated me like it shouldn't."
Whatever the score, the new-old course is ready for its moment in the spotlight.
"It is easily one of the most unique golf courses in this part of the country," he said. He serves up a shout-out of thanks to Justice for bringing him back in to ready the course for the PGA.
"We're really, really enthused about what Jim's done for The Greenbrier and the state of West Virginia and to bring this kind of focus to the place."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.