WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - On a week the nation celebrates the red, white and blue, 156 golfers begin their pursuit of red numbers.As the third Greenbrier Classic begins at 7 a.m. today, there are more players with longer histories of posting such sub-par scores.A change in dates, a strong recruiting effort and the growing reputation of the tournament have conspired to bring much stronger field. That is not conjecture - this Classic will be worth 50 percent more in the world rankings than the first two.The obvious draw is Tiger Woods, who will draw a consistently large gallery. That was demonstrated in Wednesday's pro-am, as thousands witnessed golf's biggest icon play his first round on West Virginia soil.He won't be the only star in the tournament, though. He won't even be the only star in his threesome.Webb Simpson, who snatched the U.S. Open championship three weeks ago, is playing with Woods. They are the two highest-ranked Americans in the world, and will play with 13th-ranked Steve Stricker.They go off at 8:10 a.m. from the 10th tee. Not long after they finish, 15th-ranked Phil Mickelson goes off the first tee with the Classic's two champions, inaugural winner Stuart Appleby and 2011 champ Scott Stallings.
All the champions in the short history of the FedExCup are here - Woods, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and Bill Haas. Thirteen winners of majors are here, including two standing champions - Simpson and Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA).Eleven winners of tournaments this year are in the field - Stricker, Woods, Simpson, Johnson Wagner, Brandt Snedeker, Mickelson, Haas, John Huh, Carl Pettersson, Ben Curtis and Marc Leishman.They're all prepping for the British Open in two weeks, which has worked in the Classic's favor. Dozens are trying to qualify to go overseas, as well. Many others are looking for their first tournament win, to get into contention for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, climb up the FedExCup points race and the tour's money list.And they're all going after Woods, who is going after Sam Snead's tour record of 82 recognized victories. Woods, just named player of the month by the PGA Tour and winner of last weekend's AT&T National, is trying for his first back-to-back victories since August 2009.
He's also going for another improbable milestone. Should he win and draw the $1.098 million check, Woods would pass the $100 million career earnings mark. Purses are bigger these days (in part, because of Woods' drawing power), but he is $33 million ahead of the next men on the career earnings list, Singh and Mickelson.The bad news for the other 155 players: Woods has not only won two of his last three starts, he is harnessing his new swing honed by coach Sean Foley. Analysts are impressed - for instance, Golf Channel called attention to Woods' increased stability at the top of his backswing.He ranks highly on the tour in many statistical categories, such as strokes gained putting (14th), driving distance and accuracy (fifth) and percentage of birdies on par-3 holes (18.79 percent, third).He and the enhanced field will take on an Old White TPC course that might be more forgiving than it was last year, when the winning score rose from 22-under 258 in 2010 to 10-under 270.
The course was softened by a frog-strangling downpour Tuesday, which came days after the infamous Friday storm. The weekend cleanup prevented any effort to toughen the course, whether on the greens or in the rough. The greens, a full year-plus after their makeover, may be less daunting."They were somewhat receptive," Mickelson said Wednesday after his pro-am round. "They're not stopping quickly, but they received shots very well, they putt extremely true. They're really in good shape. The condition of the golf course is incredible."That in itself has been the story of the week so far, after the Friday storm played "52 Pickup" with the course's trees. With a stunning weekend effort, the 98-year-old track has been pronounced ready to go.Shoot, ice has been spotted on the grounds and the gasoline lines have eased in Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs."It's pretty spectacular what the people here in the community have done to pitch in and get the course to tournament-ready condition," Mickelson said.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.