Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Greenbrier's 2nd year even better than the 1st

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Hole No. 1: Phil Mickelson slips a white glove onto his right hand and begins bouncing his golf ball off his driver's face, killing time. The bleachers behind him are packed. The fairway before him is lined with spectators all the way down the left side. The walkway below him teems with people ready to see that mighty lefty swing for the first time on Friday.

At 12:40 p.m., the announcer introduces Mickelson, pointing out his 39 PGA Tour victories, his four majors, his role as a great ambassador of golf. Phil cranks his drive straight down the middle of the fairway.

Up next is Stuart Appleby, the defending champion of The Greenbrier Classic, the man who shot a final-round 59 last year to win the tournament at a whopping 22-under par. He gets a nice ovation, then rips his opening drive long and true.

The biggest cheer goes to the third man off the tee: Tom Watson. The eight-time major champion, still looking fit at 61, draws back and swats a laser down the middle.

The crowd roars.

The three golfers head down the stairs and across the bridge, which soon will bottleneck with a horde of followers.

*   *   *

They did almost everything right in the inaugural Greenbrier Classic last year. The players had fun. The fans had a blast. The organization was suburb.

But two issues did arise. One, the course was too easy. Everybody, it seemed, was destroying par. Fifty golfers finished 10-under or better. One, Jeff Overton, shot 21-under -- and lost.

Appleby's 59 was special, no doubt, but not mind-boggling. Not after D.A. Points had shot a 61 the previous day.

Old White needed to be toughened, and everybody knew it.

*   *   *

Hole No. 4: The headgear tells the story: WVU ball caps mixed with Titleist visors mixed with Greg Norman-style straw hats, lined up seven-deep against the ropes.

The crowd here is an eclectic mix of die-hard golf fans and casually dressed curiosity seekers. Hokies shirts and Mountaineers shirts and UNC shirts dot the gallery. The breeze carries a faint smell of beer, grilled meat and tobacco smoke, giving the sun-splashed event a tailgate feel.

Much of the gallery might be new to this, but they respect the golf decorum. It's so quiet during shots that you can hear the cicadas buzzing in the trees like sci-fi phaser weapons.

The hats are bobbing now, trying to get a better view of Mickelson's second shot on the par-4. He pops the ball in the air.

"Come on, Phil!" someone shouts.

*   *   *

The second thing the tournament needed last year was a few more big names. Positioned one week before the World Golf Championships and two weeks before the year's final major, most of golf's biggest stars sat that one out.

Not this time.

*   *   *

Hole No. 7: The huge video screen near the tee reports the grim news: The projected cut is 1-over. At the moment, none of the rock-star trio is safe. Mickelson, who opened the day at even, bogeyed two of his first three holes to move to 2-over. Appleby's at 1-over. Watson's playing the best of the three -- even -- but his 5-over round on Thursday puts him in a tough spot.

The greens are faster this year. The approach shots are trickier.

Phil bogeys the 7th. So does Appleby. The crowd groans.

What Greenbrier officials needed to do -- create a legitimate test for the world's best golfers -- they have done.

*   *   *

Hole No. 17: This 616-yard par-5 is the best spectator spot on the course. Stadium seats encircle the green. Below them, fans press against the ropes to get a glimpse of Mickelson's approach shot.

Wade Kennedy is among them. He's 46, a Virginia Tech grad and a devoted golf fan. This summer, he attended the U.S. Open at Congressional.

He likes this better.

"The U.S. Open was just a factory to take your money," said Kennedy, who brought his entire family from Richmond to this event. "The hospitality and the friendliness of the tournament staff here is second to none. They make you feel comfortable, and you enjoy yourself because of that."

Hospitality was one of the many things Greenbrier officials had right the first time around. Good to know they haven't lost it.

*   *   *

Hole No. 18: Now or never for Mickelson and Appleby. Both are sitting at 2-over and need birdies on this short par-3 to make the cut.

It took a bit of wizardry for Mickelson just to get in this position. He'd been as high as 4-over before three straight birdies on 12-15 galvanized his followers.

His first shot here is a decent one. It hits the green, rolls 22 feet past the hole and settles before reaching the fringe. He's got a chance.

Appleby goes long. He'll need to chip in a miracle birdie from the rough.

He doesn't.

Mickelson lines up his putt as thousands buzz around him.

It's not close. Pushed right. The crowd moans.

"See you later," Kennedy says. "I'm going to watch my sons get some autographs."

As he's leaving, Watson rolls in an 11-foot birdie putt to cap a 1-over day and 6-over tournament. He smiles and waves to an appreciative crowd.

Out is the defending champ. Out is one of the biggest stars in golf. Out is the eight-time major champion.

And yet, here in year two, things couldn't be much better.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email