Watson won't waver on visit
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - In his ever-expanding vision for The Greenbrier and West Virginia's place in professional golf, Jim Justice plans to show off "America's Resort" on America's birthday.
But that's for 2012. For this summer, the resort's owner will simply welcome one of America's great golfers, who thinks he still has a tournament win up his sleeve.
And don't put it past Tom Watson, who will battle the youngsters at the second edition of PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic. Pro emeritus at the resort since 2005, he will turn down a berth in the U.S. Senior Open, played the same week.
Last year, he played in that tournament, the only senior major he has not won, finishing fifth. And just to prove again he can still swing it with the 50-plus set, he won this year's Senior PGA Tournament at age 61.
That allowed The Greenbrier's clubhouse to update its Watson memorabilia and update his reserved parking space. But Justice also felt obligated to give Watson the chance to gracefully back out of his planned visit in late July.
But Watson, the 39-time PGA Tour winner, had none of it. He's returning to White Sulphur Springs, and he's ready to take on the tweaked Old White TPC.
It will be his first non-major on the "kids' tour" since February 2007, his last appearance in the AT&T Pebble Beach National.
"Last year, I knew I disappointed Jim not playing in the first tournament here," Watson said. "And I told him Jim the reasons. Jim asked me to come to the tournament and even before he asked me I said, 'Jim, I'm coming to play in the Classic.'
"To tell you what type of guy Jim is, he calls me up after I won the Senior PGA and said, 'Tom, if you want to play in the Senior Open, I don't want to stop you. I know how important that is to you.'
"I told Jim, 'No, I made a commitment to play in the Greenbrier Classic, and that's where I'll be.'"
Justice, Watson and inaugural winner Stuart Appleby were on hand Monday to promote the tournament, which runs from July 25-31. Outside the Champions Room at the resort's clubhouse, crews had begun the work of erecting grandstands and the renovated greens were continuing to mature for their tournament-week debut.
Those greens, reseeded with Tyee Creeping Bentgrass, are a big part of the course's changes, made with an eye toward a more difficult challenge. Appleby's title-seizing 59 made a terrific splash for the tournament's debut, but an abundance of low numbers suggested the course was a bit too easy.
There are other changes, including a lengthening of the par-70 layout to 7,274 yards. Among the par-4 holes, No. 2 will play 488 yards, and No. 11 at 493. A new back tee was built at the par-5 17th, making that 616 yards.
That may be a little long for Watson, who admits his game is getting shorter in his advancing age. But he plans to get to Greenbrier Classic from the Senior British Open on the 25th, prepare as thoroughly as ever and compete.
"I want to kick these kids' butts is what I want to do," he said.
Justice is always good for a surprise or two, and he has been springing one in announcing the change of dates for 2012. He said The Greenbrier Classic will be held the week of July 4.
That date will fall on Wednesday, in the middle of the tournament run-up and the day before shots fly for real. That will make it July 2-8, officially.
"It's huge in a lot of ways for me," Justice said. "If you think about The Greenbrier, America's Resort, that's it. Now, we've got the Greenbrier, America's Resort, playing the tournament, The Greenbrier Classic, on America's holiday.
"Our fireworks celebration here is unbelievable; it will be even more unbelievable. Our train [The Greenbrier Presidential Express] is going to be ready to roll, and it will probably be making its inaugural runs at that time. It just can't be any better."
Executive tournament director Tim McNeely said Justice jumped at the chance after lengthy discussions with the PGA Tour. McNeely said the vacancy was created by the moving of the AT&T National (not to be confused with the Pebble Beach event), but did not know why that tournament may have desired a move.
On the Tour schedule, it creates an interesting dynamic. Currently, The Greenbrier Classic comes the week before the World Golf Championships event in Akron, Ohio, and two weeks before the PGA Championship. It also competes with the Irish Open for potential European players.
In 2012, it will come right before the British Open. That's good and bad - some of the best players might want a rest before going across the Atlantic, but others may need a bit of oomph to prepare.
Or to even get there in the first place. For one thing, a player not otherwise qualified for the British can break into the world's top 50 and suddenly make the field.
But first and foremost, Justice and McNeely want to make the tournament a first-class event that's tough to pass up.
"There are disadvantages and advantages to any week," McNeely said. "What our goal is, and what we're going to do is become one of those events that is a can't-miss event. You become a 'good week' by being a good tournament."
Which is part of Justice's big, big vision.
Phil Mickelson remains the most recognizable of the 30 players Greenbrier officials are touting as committed to play in White Sulphur Springs. Mickelson is the No. 6 player in the world and the second-ranked American behind Steve Stricker.
"Phil coming here is a huge boon to the tournament," Watson said. "Phil's a very popular player. He's a magician - he can put himself in some awkward place but boy, he can extricate himself. He's great with the crowds, he's great with autographs, he's really, really good with the people."
Some names not previously confirmed include Brendon de Jonge, a Zimbabwe native who played collegiately at Virginia Tech and played well at the 2010 Greenbrier. Also added is Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey and Virginia Tech alum Johnson Wagner.
Mark Wilson is the highest FedExCup points leader on the list, two spots ahead of Mickelson at third. Gary Woodland is ninth on that list, and has risen to 39th in the world. Jonathan Byrd is 11th and 44th.
Fan favorite John Daly is back with a sponsor's exemption. Also taking that route is 1993 and 1998 U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen and 2003 Masters winner Mike Weir.
Justice announced that once again, the West Virginia Amateur winner will receive a sponsor's exemption in the 156-player field. He said he couldn't bring in both the Amateur winner and West Virginia Open winner, as he is limited in exemptions he can provide.
"I hate to distinguish between the two," Justice said. "Growing up and being an amateur, I can't imagine how I would have felt if I would have been an amateur and played in this event. I mean, it would have been off the charts. That's the way we're going to keep it."
Both Justice and McNeely say ticket sales are already ahead of what was sold last year, period - to say nothing of how sales were on West Virginia Day 2010.
Weekend crowds topped 40,000, and everyone who wanted a ticket got to buy one. However, fans are advised not to dawdle this time.
"We can't just continue to sell tickets. At some point, we have to say what is manageable, what is manageable from a traffic standpoint and a crowd security standpoint," McNeely said.
Officials will try to improve the Saturday night traffic situation by moving the concert by Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban later in the evening, and opening gates earlier. Also, the parking cost will be built into the ticket prices to eliminate the hassle of paying at the lot.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.