WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Phil Mickelson’s initial impressions of West Virginia’s Greenbrier resort were about all things family.
A relaxed Mickelson was as eager to list the activities for his wife, Amy, and three children, as he was about taking on the retooled Old White TPC at the Greenbrier Classic beginning Thursday.
For starters, there was laser tag, climbing a wooden tower and maneuvering on a giant swing 45 feet in the air. There also were plans to interact with trained falcons and go white-water rafting.
“It’s an amazing place,” Mickelson said. “I can’t get over all the fun things that they have to do. My daughters are excited about the falconry. I don’t know where in the world you can do that.
“The golf is a bonus.”
Rather than take an extra week off, Mickelson is one of just two golfers among the top 20 in the world entered in the Greenbrier Classic, with Retief Goosen being the other.
It makes for a tough schedule that also will take Mickelson to next week’s Bridgestone Invitational five hours to the north in Akron, Ohio, followed by the PGA Championship in Atlanta, then the grueling FedEx Cup playoffs.
So far, having the loved ones along made the early part of the week seem a bit more like a vacation.
“To have an environment here that’s so family friendly, it makes it easy,” Mickelson said Wednesday.
Coming off a tie for second at the British Open, Mickelson can take over the FedEx Cup points lead with a win at the Greenbrier Classic. He’s currently fourth. Webb Simpson, at No. 9, is the only other golfer in the field in the top 10.
“I had a good tournament there at the British and I felt like I turned the corner,” Mickelson said. “I’m starting to put things together slowly, be a little bit more patient, enjoy my time on the course and be more creative hitting shots again. I’m excited about this next three-week stretch.”
Mickelson’s only impressions of the par-70 Old White before this week were from television, watching Stuart Appleby shoot 59 to win last year’s inaugural tournament at 22 under, a stroke better than Jeff Overton.
Mickelson will be in the same group as Appleby and Greenbrier pro emeritus Tom Watson for the first two rounds and plans to pay particular attention to the defending champion.
“I’ll probably watch a little bit how he plays this course,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson was paired in a pro-am Wednesday with Greenbrier owner Jim Justice, who made it one of his missions to lure Mickelson to this event.
“I like old-style golf courses,” Mickelson said. “I like courses that are fun to play, courses that you can make birdies, you can be aggressive on, you can recover if you make a mistake. And this course seems to suit that.”
It’s just not suitable for 59s anymore. The Old White has undergone significant changes since last year.
Fairways have been narrowed, bunkers have been added and the 97-year-old course has been lengthened more than 200 yards. A lake on No. 16 was expanded. The greens were reseeded with bentgrass and should be firmer and faster.
“It’s got to be, I think, between three and four shots harder than what it was for us Saturday and Sunday last year compared to today,” Appleby said. “You know, anyone shooting in the mid-teens I think would be a very good score.”
Especially for Appleby, who’s in another slump.
He’s missed nine cuts in his last 12 tournaments, was disqualified from the AT&T National for signing an incorrect scorecard and withdrew from the St. Jude’s Classic after shooting 8 over in the first round.
But he entered last year’s Greenbrier Classic in a slide too: he hadn’t won since 2006.
“You know, at this time last year, I was also very frustrated,” Appleby said. “The game works in weird ways.”
Watson missed last year’s tournament in order to compete in the U.S. Senior Open. He’s entered this year and joked that, given the course’s makeover, he’d like to play from the seniors’ tees.
“There’s not going to be any 59s shot,” Watson said. “The greens are a lot firmer. The ball is not going to stop. It’s going to take a lot of skill to get the ball close to the flag positions on these greens. It’s like playing the links greens where they really are hard and they release.”
Notes: The top 50 in the world rankings will earn exemptions into Bridgestone next week. Among those entered in the Greenbrier Classic and fighting for automatic spots are Ryan Palmer, who is 52nd and was the runner-up to Hunter Mahan at Bridgestone last year, and Webb Simpson at No. 53. Jonathan Byrd, at No. 50, also is entered. … Like Appleby last year, the winner of The Greenbrier Classic also will make the Bridgestone field if he hasn’t previously qualified. … The winner of the Greenbrier Classic will receive $1.08 million. It’s the final event for the top 70 on the PGA Tour money list to earn spots in the PGA Championship. The Greenbrier winner also earns an automatic exemption to the PGA Championship if he hadn’t already qualified. Among those still looking to get in are Jimmy Walker at No. 72 and Carl Pettersson at No. 73.