At a time when most golf resorts are feeling the pinch, they’re popping corks and tossing dice at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. It’s all thanks to local coal magnate Jim Justice, who rescued the sleepy, cash-bleeding golf resort from the jaws of bankruptcy last year.
This week it hosts the PGA Tour Greenbrier Classic, the first in a six-year deal with the Tour.
Opened in 1858, the Greenbrier has hosted 26 U.S. presidents, becoming a favorite vacation spot for politicians because of its classic columned architecture, impeccable service and secluded location.
During the Eisenhower administration the resort built a massive secret bunker that's large enough to serve as meeting and living quarters for the entire U.S. congress. It was kept in a constant state of readiness during the Cold War by a secret group hired by the government. It has since closed, and is now a museum.
While the Greenbrier maintained its reputation as the nation's premiere luxury resort, its popularity waned in the 1980s when other high-end hotel brands like Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons dramatically expanded. By 2000 the resort had lost its coveted Mobil five star rating and as the economy worsened further, the resort went into a financial tailspin.
On the verge of bankruptcy in May 2009 Justice out-negotiated Marriott and purchased the Greenbrier for a paltry $20.1 million.
His restoration project began quickly, as he fervently transformed the operation into the thriving casino resort that it is today.
But as much as acquiring the Greenbrier was a business deal for Justice, it was personal as well. In particular the potential of a PGA Tour event had special meaning to him.
“Being a kid growing up here and playing in the State Amateur here, it was really important to me to get the PGA Tour,” Justice said. “It was a pretty easy decision to step in and get this done.”
Though the Greenbrier Classic will be played on the Old White Course, the original plan was to hold the event at the Greenbrier Course, which hosted the 1979 Ryder Cup and the 1994 Solheim Cup.
“When the PGA Tour people came out here they went out on the Greenbrier Course naturally because we had the Solheim and Ryder Cup there,” Justice remembers. “But while we were eating lunch they said, ‘Do you care if we run out and check out the White Course?’ They were gone about 40 minutes and all the sudden they flew back in and said, ‘This is unbelievable! This is where we want to have it.’”
The Old White Course, designed by C.B. Macdonald, is the resort’s first 18-hole golf course. It features generous fairways and challenging, undulating greens. In typical Macdonald fashion, several holes pay tribute to links holes in Europe, including No. 8 (Redan hole at North Berwick), No. 13 (Alps hole at Prestwick) and No. 15 (Eden hole at St. Andrews).
Asked which course PGA Tour players will be reminded of when they play the Old White Course, Justice paused for a moment before offering his opinion.
“Honestly, if I were to try and compare it to somewhere, it would be Augusta,” he said. “It’s an older course with great big giant trees… But it’s not a slugfest; it’ll take you back in time.”
In addition to bringing the PGA Tour to the Greenbrier, Justice oversaw the lightning-quick development of a 102,000-square-foot casino replete with craps tables, cards and row upon row of slot machines. From concept to completion, the project took less than a year.
Built entirely underground so as to protect the Greenbrier’s historic façade, the Casino Club opened with a black-tie party with a guest list that included Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Jessica Simpson, Ben Affleck and Brooke Shields. Howard Stern's wife, Beth Ostrosky, interviewed the stars for the TV show, 'Extra”
Justice picked up the $2 million tab for the party, which included appearance fees for many of the celebs.
With the Greenbrier Classic and Casino Club, Justice already has elevated the resort to a level that looked impossible only a couple years ago. But despite all he’s achieved, he admits he still has a long way to go to return the Greenbrier to its former glory.
His next priority is to regain that Mobil five-star rating. To do so he plans to utilize the same principles of teamwork that he instills as coach of the local Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team.
“In basketball – as in business – the coach has to care for the players, the players have to genuinely care back, and then the coach has to make it mandatory that the players care about each other,” he said. “It seems so easy, but if you can get that really going, you can’t be stopped.”