WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Charles Howell III remembers coming to the Greenbrier as a kid, struggling to wade through the resort’s rivers as he fly fished with his dad, Charles. Howell, then as he is now, was as skinny as a fishing pole.
“I remember busting my tail in the creeks, trying to walk around in those waders,” Howell said. “I remember falling down a few times. That water’s colder than you’d think.”
Howell came to The Greenbrier Classic because of those fond childhood memories. He finished ninth last year after not recording a single bogey in the tournament.
He arrived here this year in good form, thanks to some swing work with instructor Kevin Smeltz, a new belly putter and a lighter practice schedule, which he implemented to remain fresh in the summer months.
Howell finished third, third and fifth in three starts preceding the Open Championship, where he tied for 28th. This is his first start since Royal St. George’s, and he’s in contention once again after consecutive 2-under 68s. He’s three shots back of Brendon de Jonge’s morning lead. De Jonge, who finished third here last year, was at 7-under 133.
Players came to the Greenbrier for myriad reasons. Phil Mickelson said it was the family amenities. Tom Watson and Kenny Perry bypassed on the U.S. Senior Open because of business relationships with the club (Watson is the pro emeritus, while Perry wears the resort’s logo). Anthony Kim, Webb Simpson and Ryan Palmer are trying to work their way into next week’s WGC-Bridgestone by finishing the week in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking. Howell, at No. 86 in the OWGR, also has an outside shot.
Many, though, are worried about keeping a card or earning their way into the FedEx Cup playoffs. While names like Mickelson, Kim and Sergio Garcia litter the leaderboard, the bulk of the Greenbrier field consists not of superstars, but players with uncertain job prospects. For those on the bottom end of the Tour’s food chain, only the Reno-Tahoe Open, held opposite the Bridgestone, and Wyndham Championship remain before the playoffs and Fall Series.
Jim Justice, the Greenbrier’s owner, has designs on bigger things for his event, though. He also has his eyes on the 2017 Presidents Cup, claiming that the Tour is happy with the recent renovations that to the C.B. MacDonald-designed Old White Course (which became a TPC earlier this year). The Tour declined to comment on Presidents Cup site selection.
One thing is certain: the tournament will have a new date next year, one that should help draw a stronger field. The 2012 Greenbrier will fall June 5-8, on Fourth of July week and between the AT&T National and John Deere Classic. The move is a reward for Justice’s dedication to the event. He has an enthusiasm for The Greenbrier Classic that is refreshing in our current climate, where many long-time Tour stops were threatened species.
“He’s a very, very passionate individual,” said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations. “He has done everything we have asked of him, from the first meeting, everything from rolling out the red carpet at the resort to investing considerable amounts to make the golf course better and better each year. He’s a visionary person.”
The people of West Virginia, a proud folk steeled by their share of hardships, also are proud of this event, which paints their state in a good light. Crowds for the pro-am days were larger than the ones that some tournaments see on Sunday. Justice, who will begin coaching boys basketball at Greenbrier East High School this season after coaching the girls for many years, is revered in a day and age when the wealthy are often reviled. He was hounded for autographs after his pro-am round Wednesday, and received a loud cheer when his opening tee shot, a low, well-struck draw, found the fairway.
“They do care about me, and they know I’m passionate about them,” Justice said. “I want more than anything for our people to feel just a little bit more proud of themselves.”