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Stakes high as 5th Greenbrier Classic tees off

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette
Bubba Watson pitches to the second green during Wednesday’s pro-am.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- For many in the day-to-day golf media, Jimmy Walker is the obvious pick to win the fifth edition of the Greenbrier Classic.

A very small sample: “Look at his position atop the FedExCup rankings. Look at his track record [three top-4 finishes] here. Not sure how you can pick anybody else.”

ESPN: “As everyone else took a beating at Congressional Country Club, Walker enjoyed his second week off after the U.S. Open. This is an event he's had serious success at in the past, but this year he finally raises the trophy.”

Which means he probably won’t lead the 156-man field. There is nothing obvious about this tournament, which neatly straddles the Fourth of July, two weeks before the British Open.

One winner (Stuart Appleby) went from struggling to reach the FedExCup playoffs to shooting a 59. Two were rookies, one who used a six-birdie binge (Scott Stallings) and another who came from deep in the reshuffle pile (Tom Potter). The fourth (Jonas Blixt) not only rallied to beat the 54-hole leader, he played a sub-4-hour round to beat darkness.

This isn’t the U.S. Open by any stretch, but the stakes aren’t small.

Money is the biggie, and it’s not just about the $6.5 million purse. Come Sunday, somebody is going to haul down $1.17 million, win a trip to the British Open (and a shot at more money) if he hasn’t already qualified, win a trip to the 2015 Masters (more Benjamins) and the World Golf Championships event in August (cha-ching).

All that, plus a two-year exemption and a bump in the FedExCup standings (top bonus in playoffs is $10 million). All told, four players (as long as they are in the overall top 12 and ties) will land in the British Open.

And several players are jockeying to get on the U.S. Ryder Cup team — that doesn’t pay anything, but the opportunity to represent their respective side country is priceless.

Once again, there is no sporting event in the state of West Virginia with as much at stake.

Players from 16 nations are represented, with 81 winners on the PGA Tour and 16 winners of major tournaments. Five are in the top 10 in the point standings, led by Walker’s 2,322 and Bubba Watson’s 2,083.

In the world rankings, the tournament is rated slightly higher than the 2013 edition, making it the second toughest of the five Classics. The withdrawal Monday of Jason Day hurt in that department, but the Classic still has five of the top 30, 12 of the top 50 and 29 of the top 100.

And a whole bunch of other players, as this is one of the fullest-field events on the schedule. Barring those pesky weather delays, there is more than enough time to start at 7 a.m. and finish by sunset.

Speaking of weather, play was delayed at 4:40 p.m. by a thunderstorm at the Wednesday pro-am. That means players will be greeted by softer greens and may enjoy “lift, clean and replace” rules.

The field has other diversities. Consider that four players who just stepped out of college are in the field — Patrick Rodgers, Oliver Goss, Bobby Wyatt and West Virginia Amateur winner Brian Anania.

Patrick Reed, who led last week’s Quicken Loans Classic after 54 holes before blowing up, is here. Steve Stricker, playing on a limited schedule but nonetheless committing at the last minute, is here with wife Nicki serving as caddie.

Nick Faldo is even here, perhaps getting in two rounds before settling in beside Jim Nantz for the weekend CBS broadcast. Tom Watson, the 64-year-old pro emeritus of The Greenbrier resort, is back after making the cut last year.

A core of Greenbrier loyalists has emerged. Twenty-three players are playing in their fifth Classic, including Walker. Of those, five have made all four cuts.

And then there are the newcomers, the rookies, the players deep in the graduated reshuffle, the veterans struggling to keep their card and the four open qualifiers from Monday.

At 7 a.m., a cannon shot will reverberate through the valley, opening the tournament in earnest. And for four days, White Sulphur Springs turns into a land of opportunity for 156 men from age 20 (Goss) to 64 (Tom Watson).

Is it time for star power to prevail, or another from the ranks of the unheralded?

Reach Doug Smock at 304-444-1083, or follow him at

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