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Rick Ryan: Now is Bubba’s chance to inject some pizzazz

CHRIS DORST | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Bubba Watson is 6 strokes behind Billy Hurley III heading into today’s final round.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — The Greenbrier Classic doesn’t need a savior. The event, now in its fifth year, can stand on its own. And does it quite well, in fact.

It hasn’t always been able to lure all the best golfers in the world to this corner of West Virginia, but few tournaments do, unless you’re one of the majors or the other big boys in the pecking order.

As for what the PGA Tour thinks of the Classic, all you need know is this:

In 2012 — even before the tournament began its popular Fourth of July week date — the PGA signed a six-year extension with Jim Justice and Company that carried their agreement through 2021. That made it the longest tournament commitment on the PGA Tour.

So, no, the Greenbrier Classic doesn’t need any artificial support. One thing is could use, though, is a jolt of pizzazz.

And Bubba Watson could do just that in today’s final round.

Watson, the two-time Masters champion and the biggest name at the Greenbrier Classic, had a chance to jump up the leaderboard in Saturday’s third round, but had to settle for a 1-under 69 that left him at 6 under for the tournament — six shots off the pace set by Billy Hurley III — and lodged in a tie for 12th.

You could tell the galleries were sensing the same thing on Saturday, as there was a spike in the number of people walking the course. And the biggest crowds were following the Watsons — Bubba and Tom, the resort’s own pro emeritus — with Tom playing in the morning and Bubba inheriting many of those in the afternoon.

Bubba Watson never seemed to get a run going, with nearly every birdie followed by a bogey (he finished with five birds and four bogeys).

“No excuses,’’ he said afterward. “I just made some bad shots. That’s how golf is. This whole week, I just haven’t made putts I wanted to make, the momentum putts.’’

In its short history, the Greenbrier Classic has gotten a bit of a reputation as a breeding ground for future stars, like Jonas Blixt, the defending champion, who won in a gathering gloom last year at Old White TPC, then saw his career hit the bright lights. He finished fourth in the PGA Championship last fall and tied for second in this year’s Masters.

But as far as total appeal for the casual golf fan, the Classic as yet hasn’t been dominated by golf’s great names and games.

Blixt’s World Golf Ranking of 103 at the time of his win at the Greenbrier last year is far and away the best of the bunch — Stuart Appleby’s was 159, Ted Potter Jr.’s 218 and Scott Stallings’ 224.

That’s where Bubba can step in. His WGR is significantly higher, as in No. 3.

The leaderboard looking at fans when the final round starts this morning will do little to alter the reputation the Greenbrier Classic has earned. The top 10 includes only two recognizable names — two-time major winner Angel Cabrera and 12-time Tour winner Steve Stricker.

As for rooting interests for state fans making the pilgrimage to Old White … let’s face it, it’s a tough task for the hometown favorites who get an exemption into the field to make an impact, much less make the cut against the PGA pros.

So players like Barry Evans, Pat Carter, Brian Anania and Christian Brand are feel-good stories for two days, then they’re gone.

Again, it makes for another opportunity for Bubba to seize. Now that he’s a property owner at The Greenbrier, he’s as close to a local rooting interest as you can get (along with Tom Watson).

Actually, it’s entirely possible for Bubba to make a run.

Remember that Blixt was four shots off the lead entering the final round last year and stormed to victory. And don’t forget that the 54-hole leader in the first four Classics has never hoisted the Springhouse trophy.

Coming from six shots back isn’t out of the question, not with the way some golfers have gone super low in the Classic’s five-year existence.

“You think you can do that,’’ Bubba Watson said, “but really it comes down to what these guys do [at the top]. If I don’t play good and they play great, then there’s no chance of catching them.

“But it’s just learn from this. In two weeks, we’ve got another major [the British Open], so I’m gonna come out and play some good golf and move up the leaderboard. If I play really good golf, we’ll sit around and see what we can do.’’

He confessed that he expected better results from himself this week.

“The whole week’s been frustrating,’’ he said. “It’s been beautiful, perfect weather. A little windy, but there’s people out here scoring, and I just didn’t make the putts. Hopefully [today] I’ll make a few putts and move up this leaderboard and scare some people.’’

In the same setting where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have never made the cut, Bubba can make waves. But only if he gets it done today.

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.


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