West Virginia hits the big leagues
The view from the No. 1 tee at The Greenbrier's Old White course. Perfectly elevated above the fairway, with the mountains perfectly framing the picture.
After taking a deep, satisfying breath, I wheeled around to take a look at the clubhouse environs, etched in my head from several journeys to the West Virginia Amateur.
Instead, I got a face full of seats, a skybox if you will.
Nine rows up, 138 seats in all - all up close and personal for the daily introduction and first shot from every player at this week's Greenbrier Classic.
Then it struck me: On this beautiful Monday morning, the state of West Virginia hit the big time.
We're in the major leagues. We're in the show. The really, really big show.
And this venue, which West Virginian Jim Justice bought, rejuvenated and tagged "America's Resort," is ready for the challenge of putting on The Greenbrier Classic, the biggest professional sporting event in this state's history.
And so are all those perfectly placed mountains, which will look simply marvelous from the blimp. Yeah, that thing's coming, we hear.
'Tis a shame Tiger and Lefty aren't. But they'll hear from Jim Furyk, John Daly or somebody about this part of the world, things you and I already knew.
"Everybody says the same thing John [Daly] said: 'My gosh, this is the most beautiful place in the world!'" Justice said. "They're just taken by what I knew they'd be taken by."
Most of the 156 golfers may be new to Old White, but they're not new to courses refitted for a PGA Tour event. Most of the thousands descending on the Greenbrier Valley this week will be.
Fans are being shuttled from the State Fair of West Virginia grounds, but don't let that scare you. Those who attended Monday's practice rounds and pro-am will tell you getting to the course was smoother than expected. And when you get to the course, you're going to like what you see.
You won't find the everyday Old White, with three little bathrooms and the halfway house behind the 11th hole. Toto, we're not at the State Am anymore.
If you've got to go, you are set. There are large, yet well-placed tented complexes of portable toilet units all around the course. You may be thinking, "Aren't those called 'port-a-johns' or 'port-a-potties' or whatever?' "
Nah, not at The Greenbrier. Everything exceeds expectations here, right down to temporary bathroom facilities. At the concession stand, don't flinch at the "family value meal" of a hot dog, chips and a can of pop for $7 - the dogs rock here.
(Me, I really recommend the $1.25 Greenbrier peach tea, which I am pounding as I write this.)
At one stretch between the 12th and 17th fairways, there is a fan mall of sorts, with a concession stand, merchandise store, public call center (cell phones are taboo), infor
mation stand and first aid center. Behind the 12th green is a wine garden, wouldn't you know.
Leaderboards are everywhere, and most are electronic. There are a few of the old-fashioned hand-updated number boards, but LED boards are found at the third, sixth, ninth, 12th, 14th, 15th and two on the 18th. I might have missed a few others, I don't know.
Monday morning, they were used for advertising, as one could imagine. The PGA Tour has more than a few "official" products, such as the official shipping company (FedEx, duh).
The tour also has an official transportation company, wine, chemistry company, currency exchange provider and an official pedometer. Does this sport aim for an upscale demographic, or what?
Speaking about upscale, those who are either connected to a major sponsor or disconnected from a wad of cash will be accommodated appropriately. There are several Benefactors Tents and one Alumni Tent, which are really indoor/outdoor buildings. The latter caters to VIP fans representing Marshall, West Virginia, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
There is plenty of standing room for the average fan, but there are several sitting areas, grandstands both for the general public and luxury boxes for luxury types. These get more numerous when you reach the 14th hole, when (one hopes) the drama builds on Sunday.
The 18th, that quirky little par 3 playing at 162 yards, has been transformed into one of the sweetest stadium golf venues you'll see. The general public essentially gets the left side, with the bridge over the creek, a set of stands and the hillside behind the green. Skyboxes line the right side for nearly the entire hole, wrapping around the back.
In a dramatic touch that will look fantastic on TV, one skybox is built across the creek, with a special bridge attached for players to cross. I can picture John Daly, outlandish get-up and all, crossing to a standing ovation on the 72nd hole.
(OK, that's a stretch. My money says he misses the cut, blows a few grand at the new casino Friday night and moves on.)
After seeing Daly off the first tee in Monday afternoon's pro-am, Justice gave the course a thumbs-up.
"I've played the last five days, double- and triple-checking everything," Justice said. "But it looks really great."
From there, it's up to the volunteer army of marshals, up to 2,200 strong, and the fans. On the first of three days of practice rounds, everybody was smiling.
And the fans were showing up. Predictions and murmurs of crowd sizes have varied from 50,000 down to simply underwhelming, but several players were pleasantly surprised at the turnout.
It was small but friendly in the morning, as a few players sneaked in practice rounds. At one point, it was very personal, such as the time on the ninth hole when Stan Skiles of Williamstown told golfer Sam Saunders a simple, "Thanks for coming."
By noon, we had a legitimate gallery. There were dozens of fans surrounding the driving range and putting green, some looking for autographs. The throng circling No. 18 when Daly played the pro-am easily hit four figures.
So what if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson aren't here? This tournament still has star power. Inside the ropes, anybody who shoots 16 or 18 under qualifies.
Outside the ropes, the resort is the star. So are its owner, its workers, tournament officials and volunteers, the Greenbrier Valley and the state of West Virginia. We'll even throw in the folks from the commonwealth of Virginia, since it is close by.
It's all good. For we have hit the big time, and it's long overdue.
Let's have a little fun.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.