WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – 5 Things you need to know for the first round of the Greenbrier Classic, which begins Thursday at the TPC Old White at the Greenbrier Resort:
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1. LIKE OLD TIMES: We can debate the “back-ness” of Tiger Woods all we want, but one thing does seem to be returning to normal. We’re back to the days when Woods was the favorite every time he teed it up.
This may be Woods’ first trip to West Virginia – “Not too many times you get to say it’s new in the United States, but this is new for me,” he said – but it’s hard to think of anyone else as the favorite this week. Woods arrives as the winner of two of his past three starts.
Sure, he’d won twice this year before claiming last week’s AT&T National. But considering shaky performances at the two majors that came after his wins, there were still some questions about Woods’ ability to evoke his best golf, and contend, on a weekly basis.
Consider that Woods followed his Arnold Palmer Invitational win by finishing 40th-MC-40th at his next three starts. His Memorial win was followed by a U.S. Open where Woods was lost on the weekend at Olympic Club.
Every golfer has bad weeks, but in Woods’ best years, his worst stuff still gave him a chance to win. That wasn’t the case this year. Woods’ bad weeks were well below his standards. That’s starting to change, though. That is what “the process,” is all about, after all. Last week’s AT&T National win was his second in his past three starts.
“I finally have an understanding of everything (instructor Sean Foley) wants me to do,” Woods said. “Sometimes it’s not quite there but I know the fixes. … I don’t have to learn a system and have his eyes there all the time.”
His latest victory allowed him to pass Jack Nicklaus on the all-time wins list. Woods now has 74 PGA Tour victories, one more than Nicklaus. Woods’ next target? Sam Snead, the former pro emeritus at the Greenbrier.
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2. BIG NAMES ABOUND: It’s a strong field here at the Greenbrier. There’s plenty of big names to entertain fans on this Fourth of July week. Woods is joined by Phil Mickelson, who missed last year’s cut, as well as U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk and Keegan Bradley.
Woods tees off at 8:10 a.m. Thursday with Steve Stricker, the world’s No. 13 player, and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson. The group of Keegan Bradley, who played last week’s Irish Open, Jim Furyk and Greenbrier pro emeritus Tom Watson tees off in front of them. Stricker has his wife, Nicki, on the bag this week; she caddied for him earlier in his career, as well.
Phil Mickelson will play at 1:20 p.m. Thursday with the first two Greenbrier champions: Scott Stallings and Stuart Appleby.
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3. BACK FOR MORE: Scott Stallings’ life changed at last year’s Greenbrier Classic, where consecutive birdies on the TPC Old White’s par-3 18th resulted in Stallings’ first PGA Tour victory. “It’s a little weird walking around in the hotel and stuff and seeing your picture everywhere,” he said, “but I kind of feel sorry for all the guests having to look at me.”
Stallings is trying to recapture some of that magic in what has been an injury-riddled second season on the PGA Tour.
“The year’s been less than ideal,” he said. “I played four tournaments healthy the whole season, and with the rib injury in January and then I herniated a low disk in my back in Hartford, kind of completely out of nowhere. So we’re good to go, everything health‑wise should be taken care of, and look forward to the rest of the season.”
His best finish this season is 22nd place at the limited-field Hyundai Tournament of Champions. His $187,341 this year ranks 164th on the money list. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to worry about his standing because of his two-year winner’s exemption, though.
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4. YOUNG GUNS: The mid-summer tournaments always present a few opportunities for young players to get PGA Tour starts. Daniel Miernicki, a first-team All-American this past season at Oregon, and 2012 Hogan Award winner Patrick Cantlay are both at the Greenbrier, making their third career pro starts.
Cantlay missed the cut in his pro debut at the Travelers Championship, then finished 66th at AT&T National after a final-round 82.
Miernicki also is playing his third pro start. He sandwiched starts at the Travelers (missed cut) and Greenbrier around a trans-Atlantic trip to the Irish Open. Young pros have to be ready to go whenever they get the call. That’s what Miernicki has learned early in his pro days.
Miernicki flew from the Travelers to his San Diego home on the Sunday of tournament week, June 24. When he landed, he had text messages informing him he’d gotten a spot in the Irish Open, which started in four days. He reserved a flight, but was told no such reservation existed when he arrived at San Diego’s airport Monday morning. He flew out the next day, arriving in Ireland on Wednesday morning. He got to the golf course an hour before his pro-am time. He missed the cut, then flew to West Virginia last Saturday.
“I’m finally on some sort of a normal schedule,” he said.
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5. WHIRLWIND WEEK: Justin Thomas, the Haskins Award winner as college golf’s top player, is in the field this week. This is the first year the Haskins winner has received an exemption to the Greenbrier Classic. It’s Thomas’ second career PGA Tour start. He made the cut as a 16-year-old at the 2009 Wyndham Championship to become the third-youngest player to make a PGA Tour cut.
“I’m a lot more mature than I was then,” Thomas said. “I feel like I’m a lot better player. I remember my emotions from that week, and hopefully I can learn from that. It’s still a tournament, and I’m just going to try and go play the best I can.”
Thomas won four times this past season, his first at Alabama. He played last week in the United States’ loss at the Palmer Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event between the top collegians from the United States and Europe, in Northern Ireland.
Thomas arrived at his Goshen, Ky., home around 11:30 p.m. Sunday after departing earlier in the day from Northern Ireland. He and his family left at 5 a.m. Monday to make the approximately six-hour drive to White Sulphur Springs.