A time to shine in a Month of Nothing

Welcome to the most nothing month of the year on the sports calendar, the forgettable month of July.  The only thing July really brings is that when NFL Training Camps open at the end of the month we are all set for the return of American tackle football and that’s a good thing.

But generally July is a sports sewer.  You get events like the Tour De France, NASCAR races, Wimbledon, the Major League All-Star game and the British Open Golf Tournament.   All nice events, but nothing that really grabs the attention that football season does, and I could live 100 years and never understand bike racing so why bother.  Heck even one of the most famous bike racers, Lance Armstrong, was a big fat cheater and liar.

For the Great State of West Virginia, this month of July begins with another chance – and the last chance in the summer – to shine as the PGA Tour returns to the famed Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs for the 8th edition of the artist formerly known as the Greenbrier Classic.  I say formerly known as the Tournament has been officially renamed “Military Tribute at the Greenbrier.”  Plenty of West Virginians have fought in wars and the veterans who come from the Mountain State as well as all veterans and active duty members deserve our respect and salute and if this tournament does that, then that’s a positive thing.

This Tournament almost never happened because there almost wasn’t a Greenbrier Resort to host it.  The resort opened in 1778 in a cool little hamlet in the Allegheny Mountains right on the Virginia border.  White Sulphur Springs is the typical historic small town and for those of us who worked with him at WVVA in Bluefield best known to us as the home of weatherman Stan Sweet.  Literally Stan knew everyone in the town and at least twice a week Stan’s vintage old Cadillac made the run up route 29 from Bluefield to White Sulphur Springs where he lived with his concert pianist wife Silvi.

26 United States Presidents have spent a night at the Greenbrier, and the resort is famous for having a secret underground bunker to house Congress in the event of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  For most its life, the Greenbrier was owned by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and its successor Jacksonville, Florida based CSX Corporation.  In 2009, CSX dumped the struggling resort into Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to its inordinate reported $400 million of debt.  CSX reportedly had a deal on the table to sell the resort out of bankruptcy (and selling assets out of bankruptcy is very common) to Marriott Corporation.  The catch was that CSX had to provide $50 million dollars in financing to Marriott to take over the resort.

Not good enough said West Virginian Jim Justice.   Justice is a West Virginia native, a businessman and currently the 39th Governor of West Virginia.  He has the distinction of being the only billionaire in West Virginia.  He made his money on coal mines, timber and a hunting and fishing preserve in Monroe County.

Justice grew up in Beckley, attended Woodrow Wilson High School, which holds the distinction of having the winningest high school basketball team in the state (that’s it’s own great story that I can tell sometime), and actually left his native home to take a golf scholarship at the University of Tennessee.  He didn’t stay in Knoxville long and returned home and earned a degree from Marshall University before embarking on his business career.

Justice has always had an affinity for athletics.  He’s been the president of Beckley Little League since the early 1990s, and he helped launch the biggest high school basketball tournament in the State the Mountain State Coal Classic at Beckley’s Raleigh County Armory in the mid 1990s.  That’s only how I am aware of him.  I don’t know anything about Jim Justice as a businessman or a politician, only as the tournament director.  During my time in West Virginia, to give the tournament a boost, he recruited famed Oak Hill Academy from Virginia to come to the Armory on a Saturday night to play hometown Woodrow Wilson, the top ranked AAA team in the State, in the tournament’s final game. Oak Hill featured a pretty fair player named Ron Mercer.  Mercer, who would go on to play at Kentucky, scored 45 points that night and was absolutely unreal.

Justice went to CSX and offered them $20 million dollars in cash and agreed to assume all the debt to buy the resort.  I’m not sure that it took CSX long to accept that offer.  In the space of a few hours they went from losing $50 million to getting $20 million.  Now, that’s how you run a railroad.

Justice immediately put 600 plus workers who had lost their jobs back on the payroll and went about re-making the resort.  Among the additions was a casino and a “44 Steakhouse” owned and developed by West Virginia native and NBA legend Jerry West.

He also convinced the PGA Tour to come to the resort and replace its opening on its schedule from the failed Buick Open in Michigan with an event at the Greenbrier beginning in 2010.  Golf has always been a part of the resort’s history.  The West Virginia Amateur was held annually at the resort.  The resort’s signature Jack Nicklaus designed Greenbrier course held the 1979 Ryder Cup and the 1994 Solheim Cup, which returns to the Greenbrier in 2019.

At one time, Sam Snead, Tom Watson and now Lee Trevino have held the position of the Greenbrier’s Golf Pro-Emeritus.   I actually sat down with Sam Snead for an interview at the Greenbrier in 1995 to discuss – among other topics – his famous 59 he shot at the resort.  The most memorable part was him telling me that on one drive he hit a tee shot that bounced off the heel of a woman going across the fairway which caused the ball to ricochet into the rough.  Had that not happened, Sam said his round “could have been a 58, easy.”

The Greenbrier Classic takes place on the resort’s Old White Course, which received a redesign and joined the TPC brand of courses prior to the 2010 tournament.  It’s unique in that the tournament ends on a Par 3 hole and tour officials make sure the Sunday pin placement ins’t easy.

The tournament has struggled with attracting top names as many head overseas early to prepare for the British Open. Tiger Woods played in the event once (and not well), and Phil Mickleson returns this year for a second time.  Colorful John Daly has become a regular at the event although I’m not sure where he parks his RV in White Sulphur Springs because to my knowledge the closest Hooters is in Charleston.  There are however plenty of places to buy cigarettes.

The tournament doesn’t have a great field and winners have included noted no-names like Scott Stallings and Ted Potter, Jr.  The tournament, the resort and the state suffered a catastrophic flood in 2016 which damaged the resort’s golf courses, the resort itself, the town, and a large portion of the State.  The damage caused the cancellation of the event in 2016 and the Greenbrier is still trying to get paid insurance claims to assist in paying for the repairs to the damage.

The PGA Tournament hasn’t done much to help out the tournament moving forward.  In  2019 the tour is absolutely moving the tournament off its July date, giving that date to a new tournament in Detroit.  It reportedly will move the tournament to September, which can only hurt.  In both West Virginia and neighboring Virginia football is the passion and putting the event right in the first month of football season, when fans have been starving for live football for months won’t help.

As you might imagine, Justice – who stands 6’7″ and weighs in excess of 300 pounds – isn’t happy.  At a press conference for the tournament in June, Justice went on a 20 minute diatribe that among other things accused the PGA Tour of not stepping to help the Greenbrier after the 2016 floods.

And that brings us to Justice himself.  In all fairness, Justice is totally about West Virginia and that’s a great thing, but he’s far from perfect.  He obviously has the best interest of the state in mind, but he doesn’t mind speaking his mind and what comes up usually comes out.  Must be a West Virginia thing because my grandmother had the same disease.  Justice ran for Governor as a Democrat and then after winning flipped to the Republican party during a Donald Trump rally in the State.  Trump is wildly popular in West Virginia and he and big Jim are now BFFs apparently.

That opened him to criticism as did his handling of a teacher walkout earlier this year.  West Virginia teachers are poorly paid and they shouldn’t be.  Most are from West Virginia and stay there because they love their home state, but the average pay ranks near the bottom of those in the country.  Justice essentially told the teachers to go back to work, that they got a raise last year and quit whining.  That caused a near riot at the Capital and it wasn’t until Justice backed off and promised to address their pay and health insurance that teachers went back to the classroom.

However, even in doing that he continued to ruffle some feathers.  Justice still serves as the girls’ basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School where he won a State Championship in 2012.  He came to the press conference to announce that he was going to address the teacher’s concerns by saying he couldn’t stay long because he had to be at a regional final game for his basketball team in a half hour at nearby George Washington High School in Charleston.

He’s under fire for not divesting his business interests.  He claims he has nothing to do with them, putting his son in charge of mining and timber and his daughter, a physician, in charge of the Greenbrier.  But, he has still not put them in a blind trust.  And, now he’s being sued by a legislator whose trying to force him to live at the Governor’s mansion in Charleston.  Justice still lives at his home in Greenbrier County and has been criticized by some as a “part time Governor.”

Regardless of the faults, which we all have, Justice has brought the national stage to the State with the Greenbrier Classic in addition to building a facility which has been used by the New Orleans Saints and now the Houston Texans for training camp.  West Virginians for one week get to show off a very beautiful part of the country that in many respects is subject to unfair characteristics and stereotypes.  And you have to think that if Jim Justice wasn’t in charge at the Greenbrier would CBS’s top golf announcer Jim Nantz broadcast a tournament that has such a weak field.  Nantz is not showing up at the Fed Ex Classic in Memphis, but he’ll be at the Greenbrier this week announcing a tournament that will probably be won by someone you’ve never heard of and will probably never hear from again.  But, if you love West Virginia, the real winner is the State…again and sometimes it just takes a single person with a vision to make that happen.


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