Golf just part of story at revitalized resort

Forget Jim Furyk, John Daly, Boo Weekley and Sergio Garcia. They pale in comparison to the real stars at the inaugural Greenbrier Classic: Reba McIntyre, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.

All are part of the Greenbrier Classic Concert Series, an unusual amalgamation of golf and music. With a $147 grounds pass, fans can roam the Old White Course by day -- watching PGA tournament golf -- and the West Virginia State Fair Grounds by night -- grooving to country music.

When the PGA and Greenbrier signed a six-year agreement last year, it was understood that the tournament would help showcase the casino gambling and entertainment that owner Jim Justice hopes will transform the resort he purchased out of bankruptcy last year.

Greenbrier history┬╗ The Greenbrier hosted the Ryder Cup in 1979, the Solheim Cup in 1994 and a Champions Tour event from 1985-87. ┬╗ Twenty-six presidents have visited the Greenbrier.┬╗ A spring of sulfur water, at the center of the property, was the original draw to the Greenbrier. The first hotel was built there in 1858.

Set in the mountains of southeastern West Virginia, Greenbrier hosted presidents and royalty in lavish style for the better part of a century. But the resort lost its coveted five-star rating a decade ago and subsequently rolled up debts of $500 million as the economy tanked.

But native son Justice is anxious to return the Greenbrier to its glory days. Four weeks ago, he pulled out all the stops with the grand opening of the Casino Club, paying hefty appearance fees to luminaries including Jessica Simpson, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal.

Also participating were golf greats Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, Greenbrier's well-compensated "golf professional emeritus," a post formerly held by legendary Sam Snead, who grew up 30 miles away in Hot Springs, Va.

Securing a golf tournament was one of Justice's first priorities. Three months after he purchased the resort, the PGA deal was announced. The tournament replaced the Buick on the FedEx Cup schedule.

"We were pretty aggressive to step up to the plate because I felt like this was a shot to show the world what West Virginians are all about," Justice told reporters on Tuesday. "Low and behold, we got it all put together."

Justice's friendship with PGA Tour official Slugger White was a starting point. The two were high school golf teammates and constant playing partners at Black Knight Country Club in Beckley.

"We used to come [to the Greenbrier] and play the state amateur every year," White said. "I think Jimmy said it best. It was like coming to Emerald City. It was fantastic. We were in awe of everything around here."

PGA Tour pros have not been as anxious to embrace the event. Drawing players to a first-year tournament is never easy. Furyk is the only one in the field ranked in the world's top 20. Justice, however, is undaunted.

"I don't think it can get much better from my standpoint," Justice said. "To do this, to see all the greatness just unfolding, it's really an emotional time."

The Old White Course was designed by Charles Blair McDonald and dates back to 1924. When Richmond-based Lester George was hired to renovate, he restored the course to its original design.

There are some quirks. The course measures just over 7,000 yards and ends with a par 3. Justice realizes the Old White Course will need to be tweaked to achieve his ultimate goal.

"It would be my hope that someday we could be sitting down and talking about the possibility of attracting a major or maybe a Presidents Cup or something like that here, because we're just gonna make it just that good," Justice said. "This is gonna be a tremendous event this week, but I'm not gonna quit until they tell me it's the best of the best."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com