Course Insight: The Greenbrier Classic Preview
One year after tragic flooding caused widespread devastation to the blue collar town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and forced the rare cancellation of a PGA Tour event. The Greenbrier Classic returns to The Old White TPC this week in what will be an emotional moment of resiliency and rebound shared by all. The Old White TPC’s entire back nine has been completely rebuilt, and all 18 greens were replaced. Every bunker was also redesigned and every fairway was reseeded. Touted as “America’s Resort since 1778,” Greenbrier could have tried to patch-up the course, but instead put forth the extra effore to restore The Old White to its early glory from the 1920s.
Nine of the Top-50 Players in the World will compete in the seventh rendition of this event, including Patrick Reed, Phil Mickelson (making his first start since the shocking breakup with caddie Jim ”Bones” Mackay), Jimmy Walker, and Bubba Watson. Nine players who’ve won on Tour this season are also in the 156-man field, including nine major champions. The Greenbrier also resumes its tradition of inviting the Haskins Award recipient and college player of the year to the event, this year that honor going to Braden Thornberry of Ole Miss.
Major changes to The Old White TPC include revising greens to older styles with less severe slopes, moving bunkers closer to putting surfaces, relocating bunkers, and redesigning bunker faces to provide a penal but fair challenge. 1920s photographs of the course were used as a reference to meticulously and authentically recreate the original masterpiece. All tees were re-lined, fairways were modified to improve lines of play, approach areas reworked, and the rough was built up thicker to original historical intention.
Old White is going to play shorter at 7,287 yards and par-70 but also more challenging. There’s a consistent flow to the course from the first tee to the 18th green. Players will be forced to think carefully about club selection with a greater emphasis on hitting fairways and course management. Greens will be slippery and fairways will be firm, with elevation changes in places more than 100 feet, and a lake that comes into play on one-third of the holes.
Players will want to take advantage of the opening 449-yard, par-4 first hole, which offers up a prime chance for birdie. Position in the fairway from the elevated tee is key on No. 1, and shots left of center should be the goal. Approaches from the right will have to contend with a forced carry over a deep bunker protecting the green. No 1. doesn’t really feature any big trouble, but it can still be a tough par if players find themselves in the right rough.
GPS View of Hole No. 10 on the 18Birdies App
The 10th hole is a green light 385-yard, par-4 nicknamed “Principal’s Nose” because of two bunkers located in the middle of the fairway that visually obscures shots into the left-to-right sloping green on approach. Accurate drives will be rewarded with great birdie opportunities, and players who fail to capitalize here will definitely lose strokes on the field. The can’t miss spot off the tee is the left side, where wild variations of severe side-hill lies in thick rough can wreak havoc and turn this hole into a blowup hole.
Patterned after the 14th hole on the Old Course, St. Andrews, the 568-yard, par-5 No. 12 is the first of two par-5 holes on the course and presents players with a risk-reward decision immediately off the tee. Carrying the right side fairway bunker will yield the shortest approach to the green and a run at eagle. However this bunker requires a 305-yard carry, and hitting out of it will bring into play a creek that runs left-to-right in front of the green, particularly with pin positions tucked in the back-left.
No. 17 is a stout par-5 measuring 616-yards, and with a very wide landing area off the tee it’s definitely a birdie hole. However missing left into nasty rough off the tee turns this into a three-shot hole, and missing right means a penalty stroke with a creek running alongside the majority of the fairway. Coming into the home stretch with the tournament on the line, No. 17 can very quickly turn into a bogey hole if players are feeling jittery.
It’s rare for a course to finish with a par-3, but the 175-yard No. 18 should provide plenty of drama and excitement. A massive ridge in the middle of the green is now gone and replaced with a horseshoe or thumbprint design. Pin positions placed here will funnel balls towards the hole and result in many birdie opportunities, and perhaps even a hole-in-one.
Players To Watch
Phil Mickelson is Greenbrier’s Tour ambassador, so a win here for the southpaw standout would a tremendous story. Mickelson missed the cut in his three previous appearances at Greenbrier, but his design company handled renovation of the course and this is the kind of inside information that actually won’t get Lefty in trouble. Phil’s been in contention at CareerBuilder, St. Jude, and even The Masters, but the Achilles in his up-and-down season is likely to hurt him again this week. When you’re ranked 125th in Greens In Regulation and 181st in Driving Accuracy on Tour, The Old White TPC isn’t going to do you any favors. If there’s a glimmer of hope for Lefty it’s that the last three winners of Greenbrier all finished inside the top-10 in Strokes Gained: Putting, and Mickelson is ranked 37th on Tour in this category. Nevertheless, I don’t see him to catching fire on the greens, and while I expect Mickelson to make the cut, he won’t finish inside the top-25.
Bubba Watson lives in the Greenbrier neighborhood and while he’ll undoubtedly be a fan favorite this week, he’s not an odds-on favorite to win. Watson hasn’t cracked the top-10 in any of his three previous appearances here, and he’s coming off two missed cuts in his last two starts this season. So wouldn’t it just be a Bubba sort of thing to contend and shock everyone? Watson has the tendency to check out when things aren’t going well, and there’s nothing in his game to suggest this is the week he turns it all around. However in his three top-10 finishes this season he’s kept his drives in the fairway and actually made a few putts when they matter. That’s crucial at The Old White TPC. I think Bubba will be genuinely happy returning to this event and seeing the spectacular success of the course rebuild, that emotion will carry him to a top-10 finish.
Bill Haas made a late decision to enter the tournament, and it’s going to be the best decision he’s made all year. Haas is arguably coming into Greenbrier as the hottest player in the field with three top-15 finishes in his last four starts, including two top-5s. The six-time winner on Tour is ranked eighth in Greens In Regulation and 26th in Par 4 Performance this season, which bodes well for his success this week. Even when Haas hasn’t hit greens, he’s ranked seventh on Tour in Scrambling helping him avoid the blow-up holes. Haas can be erratic off the tee, but I expect to see some solid ball-striking and timely putts from Haas this week, and on The Old White TPC that’s a recipe for victory.