The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

April 20, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Watson tees off a new century at The Greenbrier

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — You knew this was going to be one of those unpredictable, memorable days when you drove into the Greenbrier Resort and headed to the Old White Golf Course and found the best parking place in the joint.

As Bob Uecker would say, right there in the front rooooow.

Fact was, the only spot you pulled into was next those reserved for, in order, Jim Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier, and three dudes named Bubba Watson, Tom Watson and Pete Sampras, who is the tennis pro emeritus.

The next space was taken by a Porsche Carrera, which must have really felt out of place next your 1998 Mercury which would turn past 156,000 miles on the trip home.

The star of the show was supposed to be the historic Old White Golf Course, which was celebrating its 100th birthday, having only grown in prestige as the host of the Greenbrier Classic, Justice’s PGA Tour stop gift to the people of West Virginia.

In honor of this century of history that the guest speakers would go over, a history that included Bobby Jones playing the layout in 1918, a general and President named Dwight Eisenhower having played there in 1956 along with his vice-president, Richard Nixon, a first baseman of some repute by the name of Lou Gehrig, a basketball player who wore the number 44, Jerry West, and a player who no matter how badly he hit the ball refused to utter a four-letter word other than “darn” – Billy Graham.

Yeah, the famous and the great played the course over the years. Sam Snead called the course home and played it with Ben Hogan after Hogan’s near-fatal car accident to get ready for the U.S. Open a month later that he miraculously won.

It was worth celebrating, and when the other speakers had finished, up came Justice to make his speech before taking a 1914-style ball and teeing it off with a 1914-style hickory shaft driver.

He was just getting into his speech when he noticed people beginning to clap, turned his head and there, wearing a bright plaid shirt and smile wider than the first fairway Justice was going to aim at was Bubba Watson, the newly crowned Masters champion.

“Oh God, no,” said a surprised Justice, a man even bigger than his $1.2 billion bankroll.

They had pulled a fast one on him. “You were supposed to be gone,” Justice said to Watson, who had spent the last week hiding away from the world at The Greenbrier, “just kind of hanging low and taking it all in. I was living in the moment and letting it play out, getting some rest,” he was to say.

The previous night, Justice and his wife and Watson and his wife, the former Angie Ball, a 6-foot-4 former WNBA player out of Georgia, had been bowling.

“Last night, when we were bowling, I mean I can’t tell you how many spares he left that were tremendously difficult, and I said, ‘There’s no way,’ and he made every one of them and kept doing it,” Justice said. “I said, ‘No wonder you make those crazy golf shots.’ It made me sick. He bowled 177 and he doesn’t bowl.”

 Upon finishing their bowling match, they hugged and said their goodbyes, Justice never dreaming they had this surprise planned that would culminate with the two of them hitting ceremonial first shots to open the second century of the Old White Course.

And, in the second century, it is going to be Bubba Watson’s course because, West Virginians, he is becoming one of us, and there is a nice story in how that came about. Let’s first go back to a quote Watson said following that second Masters victory last week.

In the shadow of that victory someone suggested that he was moving in among the elite golfers in the world.

“No, no,” Watson said, beginning an interesting look at his game and life. “I just got lucky enough to have two green jackets. I’m just trying to keep my tour card every year, and if people say that I’m a good player, that’s great. But I’m not. I’m not trying to play golf for a living. I’m not trying to play golf for everybody to tell me how great I am or I’m one of the greats of the game.

“I play golf because I love it. I love the game.”

Could he possibly really mean that? It had certainly made an impression on the guy who had parked his ’98 Mercury in such a prestigious parking place, so he asked him about it.

“I play the game because I love it. This game has brought me so much, brought my family so much. I’m not here trying to become No. 1 in the world. I’m not going to ruin my life or ruin my family’s life by having that passion to be No. 1 in the world,” he said.

“I have that passion of playing golf. Every day it’s something new. I just happen to do it for a living. Yeah, I’m trying for the wins. I’m trying to become a great golfer, but it’s not going to hurt my feelings if I never become No. 1,” he continued.

“If I don’t win again, I just love the game. Here at The Greenbrier, I play with the members here. Last year at the tournament, I came in a week early and met like 15 or 16 guys, playing with a different group every day. I just enjoy it.”

And that experience sold him on building a retreat at The Greenbrier.

“I was looking for a mountainous home, a cottage getaway. I met Jim before last year’s tournament and was talking to him. Then I talked to some of the players who played here. I said, ‘Why don’t we check out the Greenbrier and see what it’s like?’ so I came a week early and fell in love with it.

“It’s mountainous, it has a great family feel and it has those four golf courses. For me, a guy who loves golf, it’s the perfect place for me. It was a no-brainer. By the end of the week we bought a lot and we started the process right then.”

So, starting in six weeks, when the house should be completed, Bubba Watson will be West Virginia’s golfer.

“Anyone who supports me, I love it,” he said. “Hopefully the people from West Virginia will love me, and hopefully I treat them well and they respect my golf, win or lose.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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