Old White regains its bite, and players like it
The grand old course at The Greenbrier resort, just three years shy of turning 100, provided a much stiffer challenge to the PGA Tour players Thursday during the opening round of the second Greenbrier Classic.
South African Trevor Immelman fired a 6-under-par 64 during the morning session and it held up for the first-round lead, but the birdie barrage that buried the par-70 course last year was certainly toned down by a series of off-season renovations.
Put it this way: Last year, 13 rounds of 63 or lower were turned in during the tournament, including a 60 by J.B. Holmes and a scintillating 59 by Stuart Appleby in the final round to win by one stroke - just the fifth-ever score that low in a PGA Tour event.
On Thursday, there were no such rounds that low.
"I think it's funny,'' said Chris DiMarco, whose 66 Thursday put him in a group tied for seventh, two shots back. "We [players] were talking about it, and if you didn't play here last year and you came here this year, you'd think, 'Wow, this is a very good golf course and you wonder how they shot the scores they did.' The changes are good, and it makes it that much more difficult.''
Golfers from around West Virginia who have been bedeviled by Old White over the years during the State Amateur now have the PGA pros sharing in their pain.
Over-par rounds were not exactly the norm last year. Only one of the 85 players who made the cut didn't finish with a score under par - and that was John Daly at even-par 280. On Thursday, however, a full 93 players in the 156-man field wound up over par.
"I think the changes to the course are fantastic,'' Immelman said. "I think [Greenbrier owner Jim Justice] and whoever was helping him with it did a fantastic job. A lot of times nowadays guys come in and try to change courses and toughen them up and in my opinion can sometimes take it over the top, but it feels like this week the changes that have been made are good ones. They've kept the character of the golf course, and they've kept the same feel with the golf course - even with the greens changes and the addition of some of the bunkers.
"I'm a real fan of what they did. I think it sits well, I think it looks well. It looks good aesthetically. It's pleasing on the eye. It's a lot tougher than it was, no doubt about it, especially with the firmness of the greens.''
At last year's inaugural Greenbrier Classic, players felt they had to go low just to make the cut and stick around. A total of 1,801 birdies were racked up over the four-day tournament, the fourth-highest figure in any PGA Tour event in 2010.
On Thursday, the stroke average for the 156-player field was 70.98, or nearly 21/2 shots higher than last year's 68.54.
"Last year, the fairways were really firm,'' Immelman said, "and you felt like every hole was a wedge or a sand wedge [to the green]. Consequently, you really felt the need to make a lot of birdies out there.''
DiMarco, who finished in a tie for 73rd at the Greenbrier Classic last year, said the pressure to keep up with the birdie blitz hit players right from the first tee.
"If you were on the first five, six holes last year,'' DiMarco said, "and you weren't 2, 3 under par, you were pressing. Now that you know it's out there and you can birdie certain holes, you can let it happen. You don't feel like you have to get it right away.
"Last year, even at the turn you felt that if you were 3, 4 under, you were behind the 8 ball to start with. So it's a lot more difficult golf course. I think you're not going to see as many drivers and maybe guys not necessarily going for as many pins because it's not as important as it was last year.''
The most recent modifications to the Old White layout affected all but two of the holes - Nos. 3 and 15, a pair of tricky par-3s, were left alone.
Perhaps the biggest change, according to the competitors, is faster greens. Spongy greens resulted in a dartboard effect last year, but all greens have since been reseeded with Tyee Creeping Bentgrass.
"The greens are a lot different than last year,'' said Mayfair, who missed the cut in the inaugural Classic. "They're a lot firmer, and much quicker in certain spots. It's kind of like relearning the golf course over again.
"I played Tuesday [in a practice round] when it was wet, so it was playing super-duper long, but now it's dried up and we haven't had any rain since then. I think the golf course is playing a lot fairer, and a lot better. Tuesday on No. 2 [a 488-yard, par 4], I hit a 3 iron. Today I hit a 7 iron, so the firmness is coming back, but it also means the greens are getting firmer.''
Immelman, who like Mayfair missed the cut last year, also noticed a bounce-back by Old White's much-maligned greens.
"Even though there's not much rough,'' he said, "there's enough to take the spin off the ball. And if there's not enough spin on the ball landing on these greens, they're definitely not going to hold the green with them being as firm as they are.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickr...@wvgazette.com.