Back To A Classic
Old White's 162-yard 18th.
Ginny and Ira Boskey, married for 62 years, have been making the drive between Florida and Pennsylvania since 1960. Asked about the secret to a long and successful marriage, they politely keep their answers to themselves. But when asked why they stop at The Greenbrier, Ginny, 86, doesn't hesitate: "The people. They treat us like we own the place." The Boskeys typically come to The Greenbrier
, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., in the spring, as they make their way home after a winter down South. When they came through last year, Ira, 87, was so sick he could barely leave the room, so the couple came back in the fall, just as the leaves of the surrounding Allegheny Mountains were starting to change.
"When we pulled up," Ginny says, "Dale, who was working the front door, said, 'Welcome back, Mr. Boskey. I remember you weren't feeling well on your last visit. How's your health?' " Dale Mann, a lead doorman at The Greenbrier, has been there for 33 years, and he's one of the more than 300 employees who have been working at the resort for at least 25 years.
Mann's loyalty and attention to detail is a significant part of The Greenbrier's enduring appeal. But it wasn't long ago that the 233-year-old resort was in terrible health. Buffeted by competition, union problems and a crumbling economy, it filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2009 -- only to be rescued by coal-mining entrepreneur Jim Justice, a local billionaire with golf and The Greenbrier in his blood.
Justice, who won the West Virginia Junior Amateur twice, bought the resort (which his parents called The Emerald City) in May 2009. He immediately paid off the debt and signed a long-term labor agreement with the staff. Within 14 months he added a 103,000-square-foot casino (320 slots, 33 gaming tables) and three new restaurants, including Jerry West's steakhouse, Prime 44 West.
Perhaps Justice's most significant acquisition was a PGA Tour event that brought The Greenbrier a week of national exposure and galleries of more than 40,000 a day on the weekend.
The Greenbrier Classic was played in late July 2010 on Old White
, which is my favorite of the resort's three courses. Old White was built in 1914 by C.B. Macdonald, who's considered the father of American golf architecture. Old White features 14 of Macdonald's 18 template holes, which are variations of what Macdonald considered the best holes in Europe.
I enjoyed finishing on the 162-yard 18th. A hump that runs through the middle of the green resembles an area rug that has been pushed together from the ends. While playing this hole in front of a large gallery at a Greenbrier member-guest tournament in 1995, Sam Snead, who was 83 and the pro-emeritus at the time, made the last of his 37 holes-in-one. (I hit it to 12 feet and three-putted.)
Old White is one of the few Macdonald designs open to the public. It was restored in 2006 by Lester George, and not long after Stuart Appleby won the inaugural Greenbrier Classic with a final-round 59, Justice had the course torn up again. Changes included new grass on all 18 greens and the addition of 130 yards. (The par 70 will now play close to 7,160 yards from the back tees.) Old White is scheduled to open in June before the second Greenbrier Classic, July 28-31.
The other two courses are the Greenbrier and the Meadows. The Greenbrier course
was built by Seth Raynor in 1924 and was renovated by Jack Nicklaus in 1977. It was the site of the '79 Ryder Cup and the '94 Solheim Cup. Tour pro Kenny Perry played the Greenbrier last fall and liked the narrow, tree-lined test so much he thought it should have been used for The Greenbrier Classic. (PGA Tour officials initially had the same idea until they got a look at Old White.)
The third course is the Meadows
, which Bob Cupp renovated in 1999. It's the quintessential resort course: ideal for higher-handicappers, shorter hitters and juniors.
There are plans to bring Nicklaus back at the end of the year to rework the Greenbrier course and have Tom Watson, the current pro-emeritus, renovate the Meadows. Watson also intends to skip this year's U.S. Senior Open to play in the Classic.
Known as the resort with natural sulphur springs and the Bunker -- a secret fallout shelter built during the Cold War era to house members of Congress in the event of a nuclear war -- The Greenbrier is showing signs of a speedy recovery.
I played in the Tom Watson Fall Classic in 2008, a pro-am open to the public, and the resort was so empty it was eerie. CSX Corp., then the owner, wanted out. The labor unions were threatening to strike. Most of the 30 high-end shops in the Dorothy Draper-designed hotel were closed. Signs on the doors read, "Call if you need assistance."
Justice answered the call. Despite his aw-shucks delivery, the 6-foot-7 owner is a shrewd businessman who shouldn't be underestimated. In The Greenbrier's predicament, Justice saw an opportunity to buy low (he paid $20.1 million) and to bail out a community that revolves around the resort. The staff, the locals and loyal customers see Justice as a savior. As much as it seems to be a philanthropic mission, Justice has made it clear that he's in it to make a profit.
At the 2010 Fall Classic, two years after my first visit, the hotel was overbooked, there were lines in the stores and coffee shops, and the casino was at least three deep around the gaming tables.
Out from under all that debt, the resort now offers a wider range of prices. From March 15 to Nov. 30, rates start at $475 a night for the Bed & Breakfast Golf Package, which includes a cart and one round of golf a day per guest (based on double occupancy).
The Boskeys are scheduled to return this spring, but Ginny says they avoid golf: "It's hard to have fun playing when you're as bad as I am." So the Boskeys know their limitations. Could that be the key to their successful marriage?
Pack a jacket -- Tom Watson filled the pro-emeritus position at The Greenbrier (formerly held by Sam Snead) in 2005. Watson has been entertaining business associates at the resort for 30 years. He appreciates The Greenbrier as one of the last pockets of formal tradition in an increasingly informal world. "Sometimes I like putting on a coat and going to dinner," he says. After 7 p.m., jackets are required for dinner at In-Fusion, the Main Dining Room and to gamble in the casino. They're suggested at Prime 44 West and The Forum.
Sparkling or sulphur? The Greenbrier wouldn't exist if it weren't for the natural sulphur water. From General Robert E. Lee to royalty, the spa treatments of The Greenbrier have attracted a worldwide clientele for more than two centuries. Its 40,000-square-foot spa features treatments such as the Golfer's Game Saver, which consists of a mineral-water bath, warm heat packs and a massage of forearms, hands, back and shoulders (50 minutes for $150).
All aboard! Delta and Continental offer daily nonstop flights to the Greenbrier Valley Airport from Atlanta, New York (JFK) and Cleveland. (GVA is 10 miles from the resort.) The Greenbrier is a 90-minute drive from Roanoke, Va., and Amtrak runs to The Greenbrier from Chicago and Washington, D.C. Resort owner Jim Justice is renovating one of the last steam locomotives in existence. In 2012, The Greenbrier Express will start making trips from Union Station in D.C. to White Sulphur Springs.