Course changes catch defending champ's interest
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - The first thing defending Greenbrier Classic champion Stuart Appleby noticed on the 17th tee at The Old White TPC was something golfers didn't see last year.
A good, strong breeze.
"Is this the prevailing wind?" he asked.
Told the affirmative, the 40-year-old Australian climbed up to the tee box and noticed something else: It wasn't there last year. He was reminded that a box closer to the lake was used instead.
And the par-5 didn't look nearly as long as it does now. The new tee is 44 yards back, making the hole 616 yards.
That, combined with a fuller lake on the 16th, stands to make the finish of this year's Classic a bit more challenging, or at least interesting.
The 17th was a pivotal hole in Appleby's historic final-round 59, which gave him a one-shot win over Jeff Overton. With the pin forward on what was a 572-yard hole, Appleby laid up on his third shot and chipped close to the hole on the then-spongy greens and made birdie.
Overton, a thunderous hitter off the tee, hit the green in two, but missed a 31/2-foot putt for birdie, which cost him.
With a small group of media joining a tour of the tweaked course on Monday, Appleby wondered what the strategy of a big slugger like Overton might be. Like Appleby, Overton has committed to return to Old White for the tournament, July 25-31.
Appleby had just visited an even more drastically reshaped hole, the 444-yard, par-4 16th. The lake on the right, which almost never came into play at last year's Classic, has expanded directly in front of the tee and is framed by a stone wall. Depending on your line, you have to carry the drive a certain distance in the air to stay dry.
"Two-eighty, even if you're long, is tough to carry," he said.
Adding to the fun are some mounds and "dragon's teeth" in the left rough, which may catch one of the really long drives. The changes stand to reduce the large number of birdies on that hole in 2010.
Guided by Old White head pro Jamie Hamilton, Appleby saw several other changes, which could prove less subtle than at first glance. The fairway at No. 6, a downhill shooting gallery, was trimmed by 8 yards on the left side, putting more rough into play.
The fourth green has been relocated and looks smaller. No. 7's green has been recontoured and could feature a back-right pin placement that's just short of evil.
Only No. 3 and No. 15, par-3s with difficult greens, are left alone. And those greens stand to be more difficult with a new surface, Tyee Creeping Bentgrass.
That replaces greens surfaces that were essentially sodded during Old White renovations last decade, and didn't have as durable a root structure. Those greens needed more water in hot conditions, and therefore were much softer than pros typically see.
If the Greenbrier Valley catches a dry week, balls could fly off the green instead of sticking. For a good reference, Appleby recalled The Memorial in early June.
The tournament in Dublin, Ohio, was uncharacteristically dry throughout. And just to make things more interesting, the 16th green was overhauled, causing it to be firmer than the other 17 greens. The par-3 played very difficult all week.
Could Appleby and the field face the same fate on all 18 greens?
"That green will soften up and become more receptive, but that was a hard son of a bitch," he said. "That's maybe what we're going to have here, because of the newness of the greens. If that's the case, I think you're going to have three shots [tougher] a round, easily."
Tom Watson, the golf legend who is The Greenbrier's pro emeritus, wasn't along for this particular ride, but he knows what is being done to Old White. He visits frequently, whether to run his Fall Classic or to reward his sponsors with a special outing.
He, too, sees a tougher time for the field, barring a lot of rain.
"You look at what Stuart shot [22-under], it's not going to be that way this year," Watson said. "Especially if the greens are firm, we have dry conditions. My guess is going to be 14- to 18-under par, something like that."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.