WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – One of the perks of playing college golf – perhaps the best – is the opportunity to play some awesome golf courses that you might not otherwise get to access.
When I attended Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, about an hour east of The Greenbrier, our golf team was invited to practice and play a couple days per semester out at the venerable resort.
The nights before our rounds out there were my most restless. The mountain setting, the excellent turf and the relaxing feel of the place excited me too much to settle down much.
It only got worse after the first time I played the Old White, now the Old White TPC, soon after its first restoration by Lester George, on my 20th birthday in 2010.
It was the second C.B. Macdonald course I’d played; Yale was the first. Reflecting on the courses’ different settings and the use of Macdonald’s and protege Seth Raynor’s “template holes” further hooked me not just on their work, but classic golf course architecture in general. Yale was a rugged engineering marvel, and Old White was flatter and more genteel, though not without its own character. These two courses were very different in setting yet there was no mistaking the same team designed them both. Like Bob Dylan before and after he went electric.
When the opportunity to spend a couple days at “America’s Resort” prior to a friend's wedding back in Lexington presented itself, I jumped at the chance, poor-night’s-sleep-be-damned.
The Greenbrier’s flooding-related troubles of 2016 are well documented, but to explore the resort’s grand Old White Hotel and play its golf courses, there were few readily-apparent physical scars left, however lasting the emotional trauma of the experience is.
But here in 2018, as it hosts the PGA Tour again this week, The Greenbrier is back and only getting better.
Old White TPC anchors the golf
The Greenbrier’s flagship course is the 104-year-old Old White TPC. True to the style of Macdonald and Raynor, it is characterized by its many nods to the game’s ancient courses of the British Isles. As with most “MacRaynor” courses, The Old White TPC’s four par threes honor their respective forebears: the Biarritz (Old White TPC #3), Redan (#8), Eden (#15) and Short (#18).
That’s right – The Old White TPC ends on a one-shotter, making a walk-off hole-in-one a theoretical possibility. But with bunkers and falloffs around the edges (where you can usually find the day’s hole location), bogey and worse is also in the cards. The “Thumbprint” contour that recent restoration architect Keith Foster put into the green leaves most safe tee shots with a tough two-putt, incentivizing golfers to gamble on the round’s last full swing. You wouldn’t normally think a short par three (pros should be hitting 8-irons and less, mostly) would be a swing hole, but this one is, especially if there’s any kind of breeze.
The best way to take in the Old White TPC is on foot, accompanied by one of the resort’s caddies. I walked solo during my round and played through three foursomes, all obeying cart-path-only rules in the run-up to the tournament. Since the course was built before the advent of the golf cart, most greens simply tumble off onto the next tee area. If you play from the back couple sets of markers, you might have to backtrack a few yards while your caddie sets off to spot your ball, which can be useful owing to the course’s very healthy rough.
My looper, Matt, is new to The Greenbrier this season (many caddies have been there for a decade or more), but he did a great job shepherding me around. The only times either of us were fooled on putts were when we over-read them. Because the course’s greens are barely a year old, they just don’t tend to break as much as you might think. But they are in excellent shape, along with the rest of the course.
Visually, The Old White TPC is one of those courses that is just a fun to look at. Macdonald and Raynor (and Foster) did a great job placing features in aesthetic context – the abrupt mounding and bunkering around the greens invokes the general shapes of the mountains that surround the site, but the course’s more formally-shaped features (flat-bottomed bunkers and sheer drop-offs) are different enough to create a distinction between what is natural and what is manufactured for the golfer’s pleasure. This is an interesting counterpoint to the modern minimalist movement of golf course design, which seeks to disguise any manmade features, almost to a fault at times.
Just as the Old White TPC showcases the sensitive hand of Macdonald and Raynor, The Greenbrier’s Meadows Course is the work of an important, albeit less-known figure: Kelly Shumate, the resort’s superintendent. Shumate’s current, ongoing impact on The Greenbrier’s golf product is more important than anything Macdonald and Raynor did, and his presence is key to the quick turnaround of The Greenbrier’s golf facilities.
In the wake of the 2016 flood and the urgency to get people back playing golf at The Greenbrier again, while Foster worked on the Old White TPC, Shumate set about solving a sphinxlike problem on the western part of the property. Pre-flood, The Meadows and Greenbrier courses comprised the rest of the resort’s 54-hole complement of golf. But ever since Old White was first rehabbed in the mid-oughts, both courses stood out as a bit pedestrian by comparison. Well-maintained, to be sure, but the Greenbrier Course, despite having hosted the 1979 Ryder Cup, was undistinguished, as was the Meadows Course, which had had design input over the years from Dick Wilson and Bob Cupp, but just didn’t have much pizzazz.
Shumate’s new-look Meadows Course uses the routing of most of the old Meadows holes and some Greenbrier holes, but is altogether more interesting and fun to play than what preceded it. He built just 39 bunkers – all defined by stacks of artificial sod – and made every single one of them count. In some cases, just a single one of these pits dictates strategy for the entire hole. If you miss on the wrong side off a tee, chances are there’s a bunker exactly where you want to aim your approach, and it’s up to you whether to take it on or play safe. This dilemma is the essence of good golf course design, and being an architecture buff himself, Shumate deploys it very well. The engaging green contours of the new Meadows make it a course you’ll enjoy playing multiple times during your stay because many holes will play differently one day to the next as the staff moves pin positions around.
Three good looks at the revamped Meadows Course at @the_greenbrier. Resort Superintendent Kelly Shumate and his staff busted their butts to get the course back up and running, and Kelly took the opportunity to give Meadows some more character, which comes in the form of artificial sod-wall bunkers and some intriguing greens. - Morning fog burns off the mountains in the distance beyond the 7th - Fescue growing in and lending texture on the way to the par-3 10th green - The Punchbowl-like green of the par-5 13th
Shumate’s influence over the golf at The Greenbrier does not stop there. Set to debut around August 1 is the Ashford Short Course, an original creation of Shumate’s, over on Greenbrier Sporting Club property. GSC’s big course, The Snead, is private and only available to club members (unless you come along with us for a visit this fall), but the Ashford will be an amenity for resort guests as well, and I expect it to be a hit. Of its nine holes, the longest will be barely 110 yards, which means all most players will need is a putter, a wedge, a short iron and a beverage. Wandering the routing, they will encounter miniature MacRaynor template holes, as well as an even more obscure throwback at the ninth. There, Shumate crafted a slightly shorter replica of one of New England’s great par threes: the ninth at Myopia Hunt Club, whose long, skinny green and trench-like fronting and flanking bunkers represent Golden Age golf at its cheekiest. Even non-nerds will enjoy playing it, but those looking to learn about the game’s heritage will come to regard the Ashford as a portal down the rabbit hole of golf course design obsession.
Finally, what of the aforementioned Greenbrier Course? At the moment, a dozen of its holes – the first eight and last four – are being maintained, but not played, while discussions continue about what to do with the land. Phil Mickelson and his design group have been linked to a plan to add six holes on a plot of land across Interstate 64, which will echo the MacRaynor style, since Raynor designed the original Greenbrier Course back in the 1920s. Another potential avenue might be to restore that original second Raynor Greenbrier Course, the land for which according to Shumate is “90% there.” This would be fascinating as well; built a decade after the Old White, the Greenbrier Course was a decidedly bolder effort. Shumate showed me some old photos of that course in his possession and the bunkering looked nothing like the Old White TPC’s or any other MacRaynor course I’ve played or seen. Instead, those old sandy hazards resembled something one might have expected from George Thomas or Alister Mackenzie. A restoration of the original Greenbrier Course would give the resort something of a museum piece on a few hundred acres. Visitors would get to experience the evolution of a design style many regard as fairly static. For those of us who love golf course architecture, it would be a one-of-a-kind opportunity - the Dylan-going-electric analogy comes back to mind. For rank-and-file golfers, it would simply be seriously fun golf.
Whatever happens, both a unique history and strong contemporary expertise and leadership have put The Greenbrier in position to make its next 240 years as successful as its first.
So much more than golf, too
As interesting as the history of golf at The Greenbrier is (I feel like I’ve shortchanged Sam Snead, who was a part of the cast there for many years), it is just one of literally dozens of activities on offer at the resort.
When I wasn’t on the golf course, a great deal of my free time was spent simply wandering the grounds and vast main hotel. The latter is a veritable museum of décor, characterized by the “Modern Baroque” style of interior design titan Dorothy Draper. Draper’s profusions of colorful wallpapers and lavish furnishings are almost too much to handle at times, until you realize that the massive interior spaces of The Greenbrier warrant nothing less. This extends to the guestrooms, which though sometimes idiosyncratically shaped, are oversized and full of their own charm.
Dining at The Greenbrier is an event unto itself. The resort is one of the last of a dying breed where dress codes at restaurants not only exist but are gleefully obeyed by all guests. This includes the Main Dining Room, where men must wear a blazer and tie during dinner hours. While I don’t necessarily think all upscale restaurants require such dress-up, it’s fun and charming that The Greenbrier still does.
My favorite meal of my couple-days stay was at Prime 44 West Steakhouse, named for Los Angeles Lakers legend and West Virginia favorite son Jerry West. The appetizer of escargots was terrific and the veal chop that followed was one of the best I’ve had. And I’m not just saying that because the mint julep – an alleged Greenbrier original – with which I started my dinner had me in good spirits.
Falconry, fishing, hiking, shooting, a casino, a movie theater, a bowling alley, ropes courses, glass blowing lessons, Segway tours, carriage rides…this represents a fraction of what’s possible at The Greenbrier. Its sheer size makes it as enjoyable a spot for a family vacation or reunion as it is for a couples retreat or a golf-centric buddies trip. A day can be as full or as lazy as you want it, and at the end of it you can sit down at a desk in a hallway and pen a letter on Greenbrier stationery to whoever is missing out and simply slip it down one of the decades-old mail chutes on the walls in many common areas.
If there’s any resort that merits a 2,000-word article (that somehow only scratches the surface), it’s The Greenbrier. There’s that much to do, that much going on, and that strong a reason to visit.