Greenbrier comes back to life

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greenbrier old white 18
Old White is one of only two courses on the PGA Tour to finish with a par 3 (Courtesy Greenbrier)

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – During these uncertain economic times, you won’t find a golf destination doing more to resurrect its image than America’s Resort, The Greenbrier. With the backing of a new owner the resort built a new casino and now hosts a FedEx Cup PGA Tour event. About the only things that haven’t changed at The Greenbrier are the classic architecture, white paint and formal dress code.

There are three golf courses at The Greenbrier, each of which is classically designed and impeccably maintained. Though each course is different from the others in design and difficulty, all three feature fast greens and excellent playing conditions.

The Old White Course is considered the resort’s flagship track not only because it’s the resort’s first golf course, but also because it plays host to the PGA Tour Greenbrier Classic. Designed by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, the course features several holes that were – in true Macdonald fashion – inspired by holes in Europe. Old White's par-3 8th hole was styled after the “Redan” hole at North Berwick, the par-4 13th after “Alps” at Prestwick and the par-3 15th after “Eden” at St. Andrews.

As advancements in equipment technology dulled the luster of Macdonald’s design over the years, Lester George was commissioned in 2006 to renovate the course.

Though Old White has generous fairways and is short by today’s standards, mature trees and tricky greens mean scores can add up quickly. A caddie told us that after Boo Weekley finished his pro-am round at The Greenbrier Classic he confessed he didn’t make a birdie during his round, and couldn’t recall the last time he’d gone birdie-free. His respect for the course paid off, however, as he went on to finish T-9 that week.

The world’s best golfers didn’t take long to figure out Old White. Stuart Appleby shot the PGA Tour’s fifth-ever 59 in the final round en route to a 22-under finish. D.A. Points flirted with his own 59 in Round 3 before a bogey at the par-5 17th forced him to settle for 61. But don’t let the pros fool you – Old White is tough.

The resort’s second course is called the Greenbrier Course, and it actually has more pro pedigree than its elder sibling. Designed by Seth Raynor and opened in 1924, the course entered the world golf scene in 1977 when Jack Nicklaus completed a renovation of the course in preparation for the 1979 Ryder Cup.

After hosting the Solheim Cup in 1994 the Greenbrier Course became the only public golf course to host both of these prestigious international cup matches (Muirfield Village is the only other venue to host both events, but it’s a private golf course). The Greenbrier Course also hosted a Champions Tour event in the mid-1980s.

Because it was renovated with match play in mind, the Greenbrier Course features several compelling risk/reward holes that require shots over water into the green. By contrast the short par-4 13th, nicknamed Sahara for its lack of water and massive bunkers protecting the green, offers just as much intrigue as its watery counterparts.

As is the case at Old White, nearly every hole at the Greenbrier Course is framed by maginificent stands of pine, fir and oak trees.

The Meadows Course is the resort’s most forgiving layout, mainly because of its flat greens. But contrary to some resorts which cut corners on conditioning at their third-tier course, the conditions at the Meadows do not disappoint. The flat greens and superb conditions, in fact, make it a fun complement to the more difficult Old White and Greenbrier courses.

Despite its name, Meadows is actually quite un-meadow-like. Most holes are classic parkland, with tall trees lining the fairways and a pair of bunkers guarding the front of most greens. The only exception to this rule is Nos. 11 and 12, which open up to offer wide views of Greenbrier Valley.

As you might expect, golfers have to hire a caddie and pay a premium to play the Old White. One gentleman we met said he couldn’t imagine visiting The Greenbrier without playing the flagship course, while another couple played only the Greenbrier and Meadows courses and still felt like they had a complete golf experience.

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Though The Greenbrier has always been a high-end golf resort, to say its popularity waned in recent years would be an understatement. As resorts like Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons dramatically expanded their portfolios, once-loyal guests of The Greenbrier were tugged away. A sour economy worsened the problem further.

On the brink of bankruptcy in 2009, The Greenbrier and its 1,000 employees were rescued by coal magnate Jim Justice, a lifelong West Virginian with little experience in resort management. He purchased the resort for a paltry $20.1 million.

Seemingly before the ink dried on that deal Justice signed another one, a six-year deal with the PGA Tour to host The Greenbrier Classic.  

And that’s not all. Justice also spearheaded construction of the 102,000-square-foot Casino Club, which was no small feat considering state lawmakers had wrestled with the idea of a casino at The Greenbrier since the mid-90s.

With a new owner, a PGA Tour event and a new casino, The Greenbrier is no doubt on the up and up.

Diverse off-the-course activities
With its setting in rugged West Virginia, it’s no surprise outdoor activities reign supreme at The Greenbrier. The list of options includes fly fishing, hunting, falconry, horseback riding, and climbing/ rappelling. But the indoor scene – which includes the aforementioned casino – is just as compelling.

One of the most interesting off-the-course activities you’ll ever experience is a tour of the emergency Cold War bunker at The Greenbrier. Once a top-secret U.S. government relocation facility for Congress, The Greenbrier Bunker now offers guided tours of the facility. You could argue it’s the east coast version of Alcatraz, though it’s more educational and less spooky than The Rock, and instead of taking a boat to get there, this tour begins in the hotel lobby.

Shopping and dining are also well thought of at The Greenbrier, and both can be enjoyed without leaving the hotel. A long row of stores has everything from a shoe store, kids toy store, even a fully-stocked Polo Ralph Lauren shop.

The flagship restaurant is Prime 44 West, a steakhouse that pays homage to Los Angeles Lakers great, Jerry West, who also happens to be a West Virginia native. A blazer is required at this restaurant and most others in the hotel in the evening, so plan accordingly.

If you’re appreciative of old money and classic golf, the new Greenbrier should be on your golf vacation hit list.