Two boys from Beckley move mountains
Monday, August 2, 2010
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Friendship. It can begin in the strangest of ways and lead to the most improbable of consequences.
Back in their teen days when they teed off at 8 a.m. and played until dark, Jim Justice slipped an 8-pound rock unsuspectingly into the bottom of his friend’s golf bag. Then, with a comic’s timing, he waited until they climbed the hill at 18 at Black Knight Country Club before saying to Slugger White, “Why don’t you take that rock out of your bag?”
White flipped the bag upside down.
“Fup, fup, fup, out rolls the rock,” Justice, 59, recounted. “Well, I took off running because, I mean, he could’ve beat me like a dog.”
Hijinks aside, their friendship flourished. But who would’ve believed that these best buddies from Beckley, W.Va., who grew up 60 miles from The Greenbrier Resort, would combine to bring the PGA Tour to their home state for the first time in decades?
White blossomed into a good-enough golfer to compete from 1976 to 1979 on the Tour. He has spent nearly 30 years as a Tour rules official. Whenever he returned home, White would hunt with Justice, but time and family responsibilities intruded on their friendship.
Justice grew to own 48 businesses, making his fortune in coal mining and farming. Last May, he swooped in and bought The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy before Marriott, which reportedly had cut a deal, could do so.
“If a chain hotel had bought it,” Justice said, “it would be like sandblasting Mount Rushmore.”
When White, the Tour’s vice president of competitions, heard that Justice had purchased The Greenbrier, a place they likened to “coming to the Emerald City” and home to the golf course where they competed in the West Virginia Amateur, he was astonished.
“I called and said, ‘Man, what the heck are you doing?’ ” White remembered.
Before the call ended, Justice delivered his pitch.
“Slugger, I’m not going to let you go that easy. I’ve got to have a PGA (Tour) event here,” Justice recalled. “He said, ‘Jimmy, that’s a really tough nut to crack.’ I said, Tough nut to crack? Look what we’ve already done.”
With the demise of the Buick Open, a tournament date opened in the Tour schedule. Justice struck a deal to sponsor The Greenbrier Classic. And so two friends began talking on the phone again to discuss their common purpose: “I want this place to shine like a new penny,” White said.
White made several visits. They rode the property together. Justice trusted White’s selection of the Old White Course, which reminded him of their hometown nine-holer, rather than the Greenbrier course, to host the tournament.
“I think we drove down three or four fairways and said, ‘Boy, this is it right here,’ ” White remembered.
It took a mountain of a man like Justice, a dreamer and a doer, to bring golf back to the Mountaineer State.
Justice says he is just getting started.
“I told the people with the PGA Tour that I wasn’t quitting until they told me that this is the best event on the Tour,” he said.
Justice spared no expense, approving a $25 million tournament budget, which is nearly $5 million more than the $20.1 million he paid to purchase The Greenbrier.
He built an amphitheater and brought in big-name talent such as Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood to perform. He boasted that the tournament would double the highest charitable giving of any first-year tournament ($1.6 million). He’s so beloved in his home state that he could win late Sen. Robert Byrd’s vacant seat if he were to run for it.
Yet for all his rhetoric, Justice had to be disappointed when the field commitment deadline revealed no Tiger, Phil or even Ernie. Jim Furyk was the top-ranked player; Sergio the only single-name entry.
“First impressions are huge,” Furyk said.
Paul Goydos went a step further: “Guys don’t like to be guinea pigs,” he said.
Word will spread. The tournament will grow in stature as a family destination.
“As a first-year event, I don’t know what else they could do to make it better for us,” Joe Ogilvie said.
Two boys from Beckley, a friendship forged in golf, have made their home state proud.
“To be able to sit here with (Slugger) and to be able to do this,” Justice said, “to see all the greatness just unfolding, it’s really an emotional time.”