Mountains, camera, action
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - If the anticipation offers sufficient indication, this sequel just might be better than the original.
That is the hope of dozens of the world's best golfers, the tour under which they operate and officials at the venerable Greenbrier resort - not to mention an entire state and a healthy chunk of another.
This morning, that anticipation yields to live action as The Greenbrier Classic begins its second tournament as part of the PGA Tour. There will be one more round of pageantry just before the 7 o'clock hour, involving resort owner Jim Justice and state golfing legend Bill Campbell.
And then, when the minute hand at The Old White TPC's No. 1 tee stands upright, the first of 156 competitors will go to work.
For the record, that honor will go to the threesome of 2003 British Open winner Ben Curtis, Swedish native Richard S. Johnson and Tim Herron. Across the course at No. 10, Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey, Morehead State graduate Josh Teater and Tag Ridings will launch their first shots.
And then the race to a chunk of $6 million in prize money - and a number of attached benefits - will be on.
Event officials have said ticket sales have increased over last year, when the crowds impressed golfers and TV analysts alike. If so, you can expect more than 26,200 for today's first round, and more than the 41,000 figure for Saturday's third round last year.
Many of those fans are also coming for the concerts - two of the three last year drew more than 50,000 - but the Black Eyed Peas aren't going to help Phil Mickelson with a 6-foot putt.
But Mickelson is helping the Classic's star power. He and Spain's Sergio Garcia were identified as the big names on the Golf Channel's first advertisement of its coverage, which ran simultaneously with the full field's unveiling.
Both reside in the world's top 50, as does Bill Haas, Gary Woodland and South Africa's Retief Goosen. Several others are knocking on the door, including Ryan Palmer, Webb Simpson, Jeff Overton, Anthony Kim and J.B. Holmes.
There are many others looking to improve their position in the Tour's FedExCup playoff race, or even make it. Or climb into the top 125 of the money list and ensure their chance of playing here next year.
And then there is Tom Watson, the resort's pro emeritus who has nothing to prove at age 61. But a few weeks after nearly cracking the top 20 at the British Open, he is passing on the U.S. Senior Open and still loves to take on the youngsters every so often.
Watson, like a few other golfers, sees this as a "maturity year" for the Classic, which will switch to the Fourth of July week next year. The scenic setting in the Allegheny Mountains near the Virginia border and the amenities at the sprawling resort continue to be the talk of the Tour.
"Well, from a pro's standpoint, the word's out, from the standpoint of what a great place to come and bring your families," Watson said. "And believe me, it's a big deal. It's a big deal. You'll see a lot of families here, so lots of things to do here at the Greenbrier. I said that from the beginning. They said, 'Are they going to get a field here?'
"I said, 'Well, maybe not the first year, but once the players play here, they are going to start talking about that Greenbrier is a great place.'"
The retention from 2010 wasn't bad. Defending champion Stuart Appleby is back, looking to regain his touch again, just like he did with his historic final-round 59. Overton, the 2010 Ryder Cup player who was the victim, is still trying to shake the "best without a Tour win" label. The third-place finisher, Zimbabwean Virginia Tech graduate Brendon de Jonge, is back and will have a large following.
Seven of the 2010 Classic's top eight have returned, 12 of the top 15 and 16 of the top 20. They have found the longer course and its renovated greens to play very differently, and expect the winning score to be more on the order of 15 under par, instead of Appleby's 22-under.
That will be one of the juicier of many, many subplots. Perhaps players won't be sent home after a 69-70 start today and Friday, as many were last year.
Then again, some of the same principles will come into play as did last year. After tough times at the British and Canadian opens, these guys are looking for some birdies.
"If you drive the ball good here, it gives you a chance to hit a lot more wedges, I believe, and make a lot more putts," said Woodland, one of the Tour's long bombers.
At 7 today, those drives will begin flight.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.