Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

July 4, 2012

Anyone could win Classic, even Willis

BLUEFIELD — The Greenbrier Classic just keeps getting better, and that promises to continue long into the future, at least through 2021 when Tiger Woods will be 46, the same age as Jack Nicklaus when he won his last of 18 majors in 1986 at The Masters.

Many questioned whether The Greenbrier and West Virginia could handle a PGA Tour event. They’ve done just fine, entering their third year, with an agreement now signed to continue for at least another nine years.

That was big news for the Greenbrier Classic. The other was Tiger.

Having attended several press conferences related to the Greenbrier Classic over the three years, it struck me that the only way it would ever be considered ‘legitimate’ was the arrival of Tiger Woods at ‘Old White’.

Jim Justice, who could run for governor in West Virginia and be a winner, was constantly badgered about the absence of Woods, and he would defend what was usually already a competitive field.

It just didn’t include Woods.

Justice was able to induce Phil Mickelson to West Virginia last year and he promptly missed the cut. Woods had hoped to play, but was injured.

Woods is now on the docket. He’ll tee off on the 10th hole this morning at 8:10 a.m. with U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and Steve Stricker.

Finally, Justice can stop answering those questions. Woods is in White Sulphur Springs, and hopes to stay through Sunday. He is in search of his fourth win of the season, with his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships continuing in two weeks at the British Open.

Should Woods — a winner of 14 majors and 74 events — be considered the favorite? Yes. If Woods plays, he is considered the man to beat. The thing about golf is who really knows?

Picking a winner in golf is about like finding a triple crown winner in horse racing. There are 156 players teeing off today and any of them can win.

The field is strong.

It includes 13 of the top 25 players — and four of the top 10 — in the FedExCup standings. Two of the top five players in the World Golf Rankings — Woods (4), Webb Simpson (5) — and five of the top 15 — Steve Stricker (12), Dustin Johnson (13) and Mickelson (14) will play.

There will be 11 winners from this season on the course, including Woods, Mickelson, Johnson, Simpson, Ben Curtis, Bill Haas, John Huh, Marc Leishman, Brandt Snedeker and Johnson Wagner.

Woods leads the field — and everyone but Sam Snead — with 74 Tour wins. Next up on the wins list slated to play include Mickelson (40), Watson (39), Singh (34), Love (20), Furyk (16), Perry (14), Stricker (12) and Leonard (12).

Mickelson is ninth all-time with those 40 wins. Woods, by the way, has won 27.3 percent of his appearances on the PGA Tour.

There will be plenty of other ‘name’ players on the course, including Tom Watson, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, John Daly, Davis Love III, Justin Leonard and the list goes on and on.

The winner after 72 holes — or more — at the Greenbrier Classic could be just about anyone. Some have felt the event needed a big name to win it, especially after the inaugural year when the winning score was -22, with Stuart Appleby shooting a 59 on the final day to capture the title.

Efforts were made to make it tougher, and it worked. In 2010, 46 golfers had four rounds in the 60s, and the average score was 68.536. J.B. Holmes shot a 60 two years ago and he didn’t even make the cut last year. Kenny Perry was on an absolute roll last year coming into the Greenbrier, and left two days into the event.

Even Mickelson was sent packing. Golf doesn’t play favorites.

Last year when -10 under won the event, no player scored in the 60s in all the rounds, and the scores ballooned to 70.593.

Appleby’s victory was followed last year by a thrilling finish, with three players reaching a playoff. Tour rookie Scott Stallings (his father-in-law — who doesn’t play golf — used to be my sister’s boss in Knoxville) rallied late to beat Haas and Bob Estes.

There are plenty of players out there to cheer for, including Erik Compton, who is still playing despite two heart transplants. Brenden de Jonge, who finished third in 2010 and fourth last year. He a graduate of Virginia Tech, and is a past winner of the Pocahontas Amateur in Bluefield.

How about Boo Weekley, one of the great characters in the game, D.J. Trahan — who I often see on pictures at our local Belk — major winners like Keegan Bradley and Trevor Immelman, and Rocco Mediate, who came so close to beating Woods in a 2008 U.S. Open playoff.

There is Patrick Cantlay, a talented amateur who recently turned pro, Rory Sabbatini, a solid pro who is known more for challenging Woods, and Justin Thomas is a rising sophomore at Alabama, who is the top college player in the nation.

There is more. Camillo Villegas comes as close as possible to lying on a green to read a putt. Stricker has yet to win a major, but has won John Deere Classic titles and will go for four next week.

However, if you’re looking for a sleeper, how about Garrett Willis, who had to qualify on Monday just to get in the field. Willis, who was a standout at East Tennessee State, would never remember me, but I will never forget him.

When I decided to leave the food service business to become a journalist, I went to ETSU and joined the staff of the East Tennessean newspaper. My first assignment was to interview Willis, who had an incredible summer in 1996, winning something like seven tournaments.

It was my first opportunity to write a story — at least since that great fly fishing article I did way back in community college in the early-80s — and he was patient with me, answered all my questions and I wrote what I felt wasn’t all that bad for my first try.

Sometimes life just isn’t far.

I couldn’t wait for the paper to come out the next day. When it did I hurried to the article to see my name in print. The name was there, and so was ... part of the article. It had been cut to about five paragraphs.

Ouch. That was a hard lesson to learn. It was cut so the sports editor — who was not my best friend — could run a column that left me scratching my head and it took way more space than it needed, kind of like this one.

I have always felt bad about that. It wasn’t my fault and Willis was fine with it, but the golf coach wasn’t. Neither was I.

All these years later and whenever I hear Garrett Willis’ name, I think back to that first article and how bad I felt.

This could be my chance to make amends.

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor with the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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