Remarkable to reality

The last day of May jolted members of The Greenbrier turf team. The Old White TPC received 12 truckloads of sod, a verdant reminder of one frenzy blending into another. 

Thoughts shift from construction to tournament preparation at the recovering southern West Virginia resort. A clock in the breakroom counts down the days remaining until the 2017 Greenbrier Classic. Reminders exist on the course, with sod replacing dirt on the peripheral areas of The Old White TPC, the famed course where C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor worked more than 100 years ago.

The Greenbrier Classic returns after a one-year, flood-induced hiatus. Completing The Old White TPC in time for the PGA Tour was a grueling task that stretched into June. Crews dispersed 30 truckloads of rough and fine fescue sod around the course May 29-June 3. The first practice round is July 3; competition rounds are July 6-9. 

“When we laid all of that grass, I just saw massive areas get wrapped up and closed up,” The Old White TPC superintendent Josh Pope says. “The weather was beautiful, and I just got giddy, ‘It’s going to happen.’ Then the next day, it was like, ‘Oh crap, it’s really going to happen. We have to really focus on getting the turf in shape.’”

Another sign of the remarkable turning into reality came the following week when the resort hosted The Greenbrier Classic Media Day. Tournament and resort officials invited director of golf course maintenance Kelly Shumate’s entire team to the gathering, which included appearances by the resort’s PGA Tour ambassador Phil Mickelson and golf pro emeritus Lee Trevino.  

Some form of work has occurred on The Old White TPC and the Meadows, another course set to fully reopen, every day besides Christmas since the historic West Virginia flood of June 23, 2016. A swift decision to rebuild the courses followed by determined work created a path for the PGA Tour to return in 2017. 

“I can’t say enough about our crew,” Trevino says. “They didn’t go on vacation. They worked over 100 hours a week putting this thing back together. I have built courses, I have mowed them, I have worked on them since I was a young man, and I know how difficult how it is to bring it back. They did a helluva job.”

Construction on The Old White TPC started July 27, 2016. Architect Keith Foster guided the project, and The Greenbrier team assisted an experienced crew from the golf course construction company McDonald & Sons. The Virginia-based Foster toured the course less than a week after the flood, and he calls the scene “unexplainable.” Rapid renovations, restorations and reconstructions are becoming an industry norm. But not many architects observe search-and-rescue teams and cadaver dogs on a site visit. “It was disheartening,” Foster says.  

The project’s spontaneity and tight deadlines meant working without plans, a practice that meshed with Foster’s style. Foster visited The Greenbrier twice per week throughout construction, and he broke work into six-week windows. The project involved balancing a desire to honor Raynor and growing turf before temperatures cooled last winter with the human elements of a natural disaster. 

“These guys were burned out,” Foster says. “All of us wear our work on our sleeve and these guys witnessed something that nobody should witness, and now they were being asked to do things with very little time to prepare. I’m sure the shock of it all was substantial. Of course, I felt that instantly. My job sometimes is to encourage people to do the best work that they can and to be as light as I can in communications and my direction. In this respect, I didn’t change anything. 

“Guys were used to doing work at a certain pace, and a construction pace moves at a different pace. These guys got thrown into something that I don’t think they could anticipate. It moves really, really hard and really, really fast. That’s the great charm about a renovation project or construction – you are always behind. A maintenance mode is a different mode than a renovation or construction mode. For these guys to quickly move into that, they did a wonderful job with it.”

Maintenance will accelerate as June progresses. Executing tasks such as mowing, raking, irrigating, trimming, fertilizing and spraying symbolize a return to normalcy, although maintaining courses without divots, ballmarks or, most importantly, golfers seems strange. 

Portions of the Meadows, which features Scottish-style bunkering, mountain views on both sides of the property and strategic use of water features following a collaborative in-house renovation effort, opened for preview play in early June. The revamped Old White TPC won’t be unveiled until Greenbrier Classic practice rounds. Foster studied noted Raynor-designed courses such as Shoreacres and Yeamans Hall when creating the greens. Repositioned bunkers and tees, new grass varieties on greens, fairways and tees, and rerouted 14th and 16th holes will greet professionals and resort guests. “Everyone will look at the golf course and won’t believe that the flood actually occurred,” Foster says.  

Stories of fortitude will abound as the tournament approaches. The one-year anniversary of the flood later this month will mark a solemn occasion in Greenbrier County, where the disaster claimed 15 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes. More than 600 homes have been repaired or rebuilt with help from The Greenbrier Classic’s charity arm Neighbors Loving 
Neighbors since the flood, according to tournament director Habibi Mamone. Local officials view the return of the tournament as a key part in recovery efforts.
“Our Old White course will be ready come the Greenbrier Classic and that happens thanks to Kelly Shumate and his team,” The Greenbrier President Dr. Jill Justice says. “We struggle to continue to do things at the hotel each and every day, but we felt that to have The Classic was so critical for our community and for all the flood victims that were affected last year by the terrible event in the state of West Virginia. We have come together, and will pull it off and make it happen.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor. 


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