Greenbrier Classic notebook
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - If one didn't know any better, it would appear that Sergio Garcia hired a new agent at some point over the past few months - a manager that isn't afraid to protect his clients.
"Hey, don't bother the Ryder Cup players, OK?" a voice from behind Garcia said.
Laughter and a few quick words in Spanish gave away Jose Maria Olazabal, standing behind Garcia. The two were sharing some time on the practice range after Garcia's pro-am round Wednesday at The Greenbrier.
Olazabal, the European Ryder Cup captain and fellow Spaniard, may be well advised to acquire Garcia's services this year.
Garcia has played more than solid this season, sneaking back into the top 50 World Golf Rankings at No. 48 and stringing together back-to-back top 10 finishes at majors, finishing tied for ninth at the British Open and tied for seventh and the U.S. Open. He was also near the top of the leaderboard for most of the Masters before fading and finishing 35th.
"I think it has been an improvement week after week," Garcia said of his game. "I'm just kind of working on the right things and waiting for it to happen. It's been better obviously for the last month and a half or two. We're excited about it and I feel like we're playing pretty decent."
Whether Garcia is on the right track or not, he remains one of the PGA Tour's biggest draws as evidenced by the throngs of gallery members reaching merchandise toward him, even at the turn of his pro-am round.
The only thing eluding Garcia is a breakthrough into the winner's circle at a major. It's not like he hasn't been close.
Garcia has registered an absurd 17 top-10 finishes in golf's four biggest tournaments since 1999, including nine top fives and three second-place finishes.
The Greenbrier Classic could be a great tournament for Garcia to gather a little steam heading into the year's final major, the PGA Championship, which will be held in two weeks. He finished at 8-under in last year's Classic, good enough for a share of 60th.
But there is little doubt that Garcia has turned his game around somewhat, and a tougher Old White TPC course may bring the field back to him even more.
"Hopefully we can get going a little bit this week again," Garcia said. "That would be nice to keep building some good momentum.
"The course has obviously changed; there have been some changes, some improvements I think. It's obvious that it's playing tougher than it was last year. The greens are firmer and also there are a couple of changes to a couple of greens. It's definitely improved."
With a quick glance down the range, former Capital High School and Marshall University golfer Christian Brand blends in perfectly with some of the world's best golfers.
Maybe that's the best compliment anyone could give him this week.
The West Virginia Amateur winner has gone quietly about his business leading up to today's opening round, and said he is taking everything in.
"It's a great experience to come live in their world for a week and I'm learning, picking up on a couple of things," Brand said.
Despite the heightened stage and the strengthened competition, Brand said he is looking at this weekend's tournament as just another golf outing.
"I haven't been nervous all week, so I know I'll be nervous on the first tee," Brand said. "But a pre-shot routine is there for that moment, for the pressure moment. It brings you back and you focus on hitting another golf shot. I'm going to hit a 3-wood off [tee No.] 10; I've hit millions of 3-woods in my life, so I'll be ready to go."
That mind frame and familiarity with the area and course may provide a bit of an edge for Brand, who said he would "definitely" make the cut.
But Brand said being the only West Virginian in the field has other advantages.
"It's more about the fan support," Brand said. "Being the only West Virginian in the field, the fan support has been unbelievable in the first three days and it's great to see that many people out supporting you."
Wednesday's pro-ams aren't necessarily reliable indicators to predict the weekend's results.
Obviously, the stakes, rewards, and pressures of an actual PGA Tour event versus playing a meaningless match are infinitely greater. Not to mention that scores in a pro-am team match aren't always completely accurate.
But if Wednesday's leader board means anything at all, Ryan Palmer could be a player to deal with starting today.
Palmer, ranked No. 31 in the FedExCup standings, shot 7 under par Wednesday, good enough for the top spot on the leaderboard, with some players with afternoon tee times still on the course.
He has shown significant improvement over the last year. In addition to his high ranking, the Texas native has finished in the top 30 of all three majors this season, including 10th at the Masters. From 1998-2010, Palmer only finished all four rounds of a major three times.
"It's been consistent, that's what I like the most," Palmer said. "I've made a lot of cuts and when I've played well I've been high up there. It's nice going each week knowing I'm going to give myself a chance to win. I'm not worried about cuts anymore or making cuts."
Adding to the list of players dropping out and getting into the Classic field will be the subtraction of Brandt Snedeker.
Snedeker, No. 46 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is guaranteed a spot in next week's Bridgestone Invitational by virtue of his top-50 ranking coming into this week. A good bet for his decision to drop out is merely for reasons of rest. He will compete in the PGA Championship a week after the Bridgestone.
This week affords players one more chance to reach that magic world top 50. For that, the focus is squarely on No. 52 Palmer and No. 53 Webb Simpson.
And finally, the Classic's $1 million hole-in-one challenge may not be in effect this weekend. Or so it stood Tuesday afternoon.
Greenbrier owner Jim Justice threw down the challenge in last year's inaugural Classic, offering $1 million to any player acing the short par-3 18th hole. As a bonus, all fans seated around the green would get $100 each.
As it happened, nobody cashed in, though many were close.
Justice held out some hope for a return.
"We really ran into a little snafu on that. Probably not," he said. "But we may very well bring that back to life, at least on Saturday or Sunday. But right now, you know, we just couldn't get it together, because we went through one of the insurance companies that insured the whole thing last year. Cost $1 million to insure, but we just couldn't get it worked out this year."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pr...@wvgazette.com.