Greenbrier, PGA Tour sign 6-year deal

Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier, talks during a press conference announcing the six-year deal bringing the PGA Tour to the resort.

From the brink of financial ruin, the famed Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., has been taken by Jim Justice on a swift and impressive ride in only two months.

One of his prime building blocks for returning to national prominence this 721-room, three-golf course facility became a reality Aug. 5 when a six-year deal to host a PGA Tour tournament was announced. The agreement, which was first reported July 28 on Golfweek.com, calls for the Greenbrier Classic to be staged next July 29 to Aug. 1, in dates previously held by the Buick Open.

Justice said the Greenbrier would sponsor and host the tournament, which will be held two weeks before the PGA Championship, at least for next year. Dates for 2011-15 were not announced.

Just one day earlier, in confirmation of a story that Golfweek.com first reported July 24, PGA Tour officials said that all sponsorship deals with Buick had been withdrawn. Despite the sluggish economy, it took the PGA Tour a matter of days to firm up a replacement for the Buick Open and there doesn’t seem to be much concern about the Buick Invitational, played annually since 1968 at Torrey Pines Golf Club in La Jolla, Calif.

“It won’t be an issue,” said a PGA Tour official. “It doesn’t get much better than that event.”

A source close to the Century Club, which serves as administrator to the Buick Invitational, indicated that upward of five potential sponsors are being courted. That’s a big reason why the PGA Tour refused to negotiate a smaller financial commitment from Buick.

No such concerns for native son Justice, a mountain of a man (6-foot-7) who is being hailed as a local hero for pulling the area’s pride and joy, the Greenbrier, out of bankruptcy and thus saving hundreds of jobs. That was two months ago, his $20 million investment putting barely a dent in his fortune, though it made a loud statement.

More subtle was his behind-the-scenes negotiations with the PGA Tour that fell into the lap of Rick George, the tour’s vice president and chief operating officer. George and colleagues made several visits to a resort that dates to the late 1770s and has been a golf mecca since the early 1900s.

“We are absolutely delighted that The Greenbrier will become part of the PGA Tour in 2010,” said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem from Akron, Ohio, where he was attending the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Meanwhile, in White Sulphur Springs, Justice was on hand to share in the announcement with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, pro emeritus Tom Watson, and George.

“The Old White Course will make a tremendous tournament course in a traditional sense,” said Watson, who follows in some pretty big footsteps. For years, the pro emeritus at Greenbrier was Sam Snead.

Not that that is the only tie the famed resort has with pro golf. It played host to the 1979 Ryder Cup, which is noteworthy for being the first year Europeans made an appearance. From 1985-87, it hosted a Champions Tour tournament. In 1994, it staged the Solheim Cup.

Ah, but it’s a different pro golf world than when the world’s best male players stopped in at the Greenbrier 30 years ago. Back then, PGA Tour purses totalled $12,081,200 – for an entire season.

Justice will have to shell out more than half of that just to stage the annual tournament, which will be part of the FedEx Cup. The purse will be around $6 million and Justice will be obligated to spend millions more in advertising on network television.

Then again, a bouyant Justice didn’t seem to flinch at such numbers. Instead, he smiled brilliantly at the news conference and said: “Players and fans alike will be stepping into the American story and experiencing a true national treasure.”

One man’s joy might be another’s despair, however, because while a new player to the scene – Justice – got a prime FedEx Cup date, several who have seemingly paid their dues were overlooked.

Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y., has backed the majority of a $6 million purse for two years as a low-key, sparsely-attended Fall Series event. Another Fall Series tournament with FedEx Cup aspirations is the Frys.com Open.

Officials from both tournaments declined comment when it was officially announced that Greenbrier received a prime date.

With the demise of the Buick Open, it also was believed that some tournaments could expect date changes, with a leading candiate being the RBC Canadian Open. It is played the week after the British Open and tournament officials said they had two conversations with Finchem and one with George. As of Tuesday evening, those officials said a new date had not been offered. Another tournament director who confirmed that he, too, wants a new date, was told of the Greenbrier deal 10 minutes before it was made public.

Of immediate concern are two aspects to the Greenbrier, though in each case officials countered with options.

One, the Old White Courses, which was designed by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor in 1914, measures only 6,826 yards. PGA Tour officials, however, have said work will begin soon so that by next July it is stretched to more than 7,000 yards.

Two, the location in southeastern West Virginia is fairly remote, some 90 miles from Charleston and a four-hour drive from Richmond, Va. U.S. Highway 60 is the primary access road, but it’s only a two-lane roadway. Speculation is, tournament officials will not disrupt either of their other two courses, but instead park spectators near I-64 and bus them 1.5 miles through White Sulphur Springs.

The biggest airport is a decent ride away, but in this day and age players and corporate folks use private jets, which will have close access to Greenbrier Valley Airport.

All that being said, the impact of the announcement wasn’t lost on players who for months have been asked about economic gloom and doom.

“In this (economic) climate, to have someone jump in and want to do it and want exposure for The Greenbrier, that’s a great thing,” said David Toms, one of four player directors on the PGA Tour policy board. “That’s a great thing. I’m sure they’ll have a great tournament.”

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