By Peter Mumford
It’s tough to know what to make of the Greenbrier Classic. The tournament itself is only eight years old but it received a prime spot in the PGA Tour calendar that was once coveted by the RBC Canadian Open to gain some separation from the run of high profile tournaments and majors that kick off with the Open Championship.
That said, most of the world’s top players took a pass last week to either spend some time with their families before the end of season flurry or to play in the Irish Open and get in some links prep.
The field was made up of a handful of well-known names, most of whom are past their primes (Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Davis Love); a large contingent of “B” list players still searching for their first win or trying to regenerate a floundering career; and an even bigger group of young players that need ID to get past the security guard on the practice range.
There were only 16 players from the top 50 in the FedEx Cup list with Kevin Kisner at #8 leading the charge. There were also 8 players that had no ranking whatsoever.
In spite of that, it was an exciting tournament with a dramatic finish.
On Day 1, Sebastian Munoz, a native of Colombia and a product of the University of North Texas, led the field with a stellar 61. Sebastian Munoz? North Texas?
He was followed by the ageless Davis Love with a 64, who still looks and walks and swings like he did in his 20’s. Except the 53 year old is about to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and plays more on the Senior Tour Champions Tour PGA Tour Champions thing.
Here’s an interesting piece of trivia that popped up during the telecast. Who are the only three players to win a PGA Tour event in four different decades? Answer: Sam Snead, Raymond Floyd and Davis Love III.
So while Love is refusing to act his age and Munoz is barely old enough to shave, a whole slew of “others” post 64’s and 65’s on the Old White TPC course to make it look like an old fashioned Las Vegas Open.
Round 2 was more of the same as the players fired darts at the receptive greens softened by a slew of wet weather. Not the kind of weather like they had in 2016, when massive flooding in that part of West Virginia put most of the course and resort under several feet of water and forced the tournament to be cancelled. More like the kind of weather we’ve been experiencing all spring in Southern Ontario where rain gear and umbrellas are mandatory golf gear.
By the time it all got settled on Friday evening, Munoz still had the lead at 12-under but was being chased by Hudson Swafford and Ben Martin three strokes back, defending champion Danny Lee and Russell Henley, four shots behind and a swarm of others at -7 including Canada’s Nick Taylor.
Oh, and Phil Mickelson made the cut.
Is that significant?
Considering that Lefty failed to make it to the weekend in his previous three appearances and then after the flood swore to Greenbrier owner Jim Justice that he’d return forever, it was nice to have the newly minted Greenbrier Classic PGA Tour ambassador on hand for the weekend festivities. Mickelson was playing in only his second event without long-time caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, who will be manning a microphone for NBC in the upcoming Open Championship telecast. Is the split with Mackay related to finally making the cut?
Saturday is known as moving day on the PGA Tour. Swafford (72) and Martin (75) moved to the wrong side of the tracks and were never heard from again. Meanwhile, Robert Streb (66), Xander Schauffele (65) and Jamie Lovemark (66) moved into contention.
Munoz posted 68 to extend his lead and Love (69) was still hanging around like your old Uncle Ernie. Munoz had held the 36 hole lead last month at the St. Jude Classic but then shot 11 over on the weekend to fade like a cheap shirt in the summer sun. This time around, he tried to relax with buddies and watch movies to take his mind off the lead.
Old White TPC is a resort course and plays to a par of 34-36–70. It’s not overly long but it does have a lot of creeks and wetlands and deep penal bunkers. It’s a course that requires accuracy. One other feature that sets it apart from most other PGA Tour venues is that it ends with a short par 3.
You may recall that finishing hole from the 2015 tournament when David Hearn had makeable birdie putts in regulation and the ensuing playoff with Danny Lee, Kevin Kisner and Robert Streb to win the tournament but missed them both. Robert Streb also couldn’t birdie 18 when it mattered most.
We’re not sure what movie Munoz saw on Saturday night but it turned into a horror on Sunday as he went three over on the front nine to surrender his lead.
Suddenly, Xander Schauffele, a 23-year old from San Diego, whose only previous claim to fame was a T5 in the US Open at Erin Hills, was in the mix along with 2015 runner-up Streb and Jamie Lovemark, who had bounced up and down between the regular tour and the developmental circuit since 2009 and was still searching for his first PGA Tour victory at the age of 29.
Not exactly the star studded leaderboard that tournament organizers and sponsors hope for.
The grand finale was played out in dramatic fashion over the final two holes on Sunday afternoon, a reachable par 5 where players had been making occasional eagles and routine birdies all week and that cute little par 3 tucked into a bowl created by the grandstands that was nothing more than a chip shot – wedges and 9-irons at most.
None of the final four could birdie 17, despite having reachable second shots.
Standing on the 18th tee, Schauffele was tied for the lead with Streb at 13-under while Lovemark and Munoz were one stroke back. Streb looked to be in the best position because at that point he hadn’t yet played the 17th.
Schauffele stiffed his tee shot on 18, just about the same time Streb missed his birdie putt on 17. Then Schauffele made the gimme putt to get to -14.
Streb needed birdie on the last and gave it a valiant try. His tee shot flew directly at the pin but it was a bit long and ran just off the back of the green. The ensuing chip shot came up just short of the hole and Streb had to settle once again for a second place finish.
A somewhat stunned and speechless Xander Schauffele is your new Greenbrier Classic champion.
One final note from the Greenbrier Classic: four Canadians finished in the Top 20, led by Nick Taylor at 9-under (T9). David Hearn once again played well on the Big White course and was just a stroke back at -8 (T14) while Graham DeLaet and Mackenzie Hughes both finished at -6 (T20).
I can’t recall another tournament when four Canadians did so well. Taylor has three Top 10 finishes since May while Hearn is on a bit of a tear since some swing changes finally kicked in a month or so ago. He has a T10, T8 and T14 in his last four events.
This week, Hearn will be in Illinois to play in the John Deere Classic, on another course where he got into a playoff a few years back, only to lose that one to some kid named Jordan Spieth. Maybe this time it will be his turn.
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag