Justice lures golf legends to build mountaintop course near Greenbrier

Photo courtesy of The Greenbrier
Golf legends (from left) Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino share a laugh during a recent trip to The Greenbrier Sporting Club’s Grist Mill House.
Photo courtesy of The Greenbrier Standing atop Oakhurst Mountain, site of a new golf course being built near The Greenbrier resort, are course co-designers (front, from left) Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. Greenbrier owner Jim Justice also looks over plans for the course.

If you want to dream, you might as well dream big.

Try this one: Recruit golf legends Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino to jointly design a mountaintop course, one noteworthy enough to get on the U.S. Golf Association’s radar.

And perhaps one day, attract the U.S. Open to West Virginia.

Nothing mentioned above has ever been thought of, much less attempted. Leave it to Greenbrier resort owner/gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice to chase the dream.

“What do we have left to do in life?” he asked. “If we can do something that’s fabulous for our state, we could bring a U.S. Open here someday, we could do all this stuff, my goodness gracious!”

He doesn’t stutter about the ultimate goal. After all, the U.S. Open finished Sunday on an 8-year-old reclaimed gravel pit called Chambers Bay, right?

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Aw, there’s no way you can get a U.S. Open here.’ ” Justice said. “Those same people would have said, ‘No way, The Greenbrier is dead.’ ‘There’s no way you’re going to get a FedExCup golf tournament, there’s no way the New Orleans Saints are going to come there.’ ‘The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are going to come there? No way.’

“You see, I’m not a ‘no way’ guy.”

The man has shown as much. In one week, the sixth edition of the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic will begin practice rounds at the Old White TPC course. The Saints have a new preseason home, with facilities that are the envy of other NFL players and coaches. The Patriots will visit for some joint practices this summer.

The resort just opened its new Center Court at Creekside tennis stadium, with rivals Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi putting on an exhibition match Saturday.

And now, Justice has brought the four kings of golf of the 1960s and 1970s together to build a championship-caliber golf course in the West Virginia hills.

Justice said the project, which will include a modest private ski facility, will break ground in the next 30 days. He hopes to have the first ball teed in the fall of 2016.

“It’s something that has never happened before, it will probably never happen again,” Justice said. “Arnold Palmer is 86 years old. The odds of this ever happening again aren’t great. And so now, we have history happening right in front of us, right here in West Virginia.”

The course will be another amenity for the exclusive Greenbrier Sporting Club, the resort’s real estate arm. One members-only course opened in 2004, the Snead Course.

Much like the three courses at the resort proper — Old White, Greenbrier and Meadows — the Snead course sits on the valley floor. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but Justice has desired a layout up in the surrounding Allegheny Mountains.

He said he had bought a site out on Harts Run Road on top of Kate’s Mountain, but it was about 25 minutes from The Greenbrier’s gate and is now “out of the question.”

In 2012, in what seemed to be unrelated to anything else Justice has done, he bought Oakhurst Links, the historic nine-hole course built in 1884. On that course, across White Sulphur Springs and off W.Va. 92 north, players rent old-style hickory-shafted clubs and hit gutta percha balls off tees fashioned from sand and water.

It is billed as the first golf course in the United States, built at a time the sport was unknown in this country.

"To be perfectly honest, I don't know that it's going to be a great thing for the Greenbrier," Justice said at the time. “But I know it's a great thing to do.”

Two years later, that golf meadow suddenly came into play, in a grander design.

As Justice tells it, a group of developers had once put together an 800-acre parcel on a mountain overlooking Oakhurst, and had ambitious plans — a hotel golf course, homes and a private ski facility.

After the real-estate bust of 2008, the land ended up in a bank’s hands, and the bank had trouble disposing of it.

Justice said the bank contacted him to see if he had any interest. On that October 2014 day, Justice had a heavy heart — he was preparing to give a eulogy for former Greenbrier East basketball coach and athletic director Jerry Bradley.

Knowing the property touched that of the Oakhurst course, Justice took a look at it before heading to Bradley’s funeral. He fell in love.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It’s beyond-belief spectacular,” he said. “In my mind, I said, ‘For crying out loud, this is where the golf course needs to be.’ This is the place, because this is the home of [American] golf. This is the very thing I looked for in perpetuating the Sporting Club.

“This is all where it needs to happen, right here.”

Now, the Sporting Club isn’t for everybody. It is the definition of luxury, spread out over thousands of acres and several mountain ridges. Undeveloped plots tend to go for six figures, houses for seven figures.

Membership tends to be a closely guarded secret, but several well-known residents are featured on Sporting Club advertising — Bubba Watson, Jerry West, baseball great John Smoltz and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, among others.

But Justice will tell you the region and the state benefit from the growth of the Sporting Club, which has been pushed as hard as the resort in recent ad campaigns. Members — often business executives and celebrities — have families, friends and business associates who will hear of experiences from this part of the world.

“What happens when the Sporting Club people come, whether they be the titans of the industry, they be celebs or whatever,” Justice said. “they bring all kinds of tentacles of people that come to West Virginia, that come to The Greenbrier, that see West Virginia for what it is, that could very well say, ‘This is the most beautiful place on the planet. I want to build a home here and I want to bring my business here.’

“And not necessarily, ‘I want to bring my business to White Sulphur Springs. I want to bring my business to Charleston, West Virginia. Or I want to bring my business to Huntington. I can have my home here and I can commute back and forth to my business, and I want to come to West Virginia.’”

So how did Justice bring together the dynamic foursome of Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Trevino?

For one thing, The Greenbrier isn’t a foreign land to those guys. Trevino is the resort’s new golf pro emeritus and summertime resident. Palmer once won a tournament on the Old White course, using his earnings to join the PGA Tour. Nicklaus designed the Greenbrier course, site of the 1979 Ryder Cup matches. Player designed the course at Snowshoe, roughly 75 miles north.

As it turned out, Nicklaus’ company designed the course that was never built, on the land Justice purchased. With Trevino coming on board, Justice wondered: What if those four one-time kings of the sport — and course designers — came together on one project?

Can those four work together?

“I asked Jack Nicklaus if he would do that,” Justice said. “His first reaction was, ‘No way.’ He said, ‘It can’t be done.’ He said, ‘We’ve never done that before,’ and he said, ‘There’s no way it can be done.’ ”

Justice didn’t take “no way” for an answer.

“So I called Arnold Palmer and I called Gary Player and they said, ‘Well, if the other guys are in, we’ll be in.’”

Nicklaus, Player and Palmer visited late last week, joining Trevino and Justice in announcing the project to Sporting Club members in the resort’s theater.

Justice is looking for a course that could stretch out to 7,700-7,800 yards from the tips, but will have multiple teeing areas to accommodate all skill levels. At the very least, he wants to add a world-class amenity to add to the Sporting Club portfolio.

But he also wants the world at large to know about it. Again, he’s not shy about going after the Open, much like the builders of Chambers Bay did.

Historically, the sport’s national championship does not go to locations as remote as White Sulphur Springs. The sites tend to be near major metropolitan areas — in the case of Chambers Bay, Seattle-Tacoma, Wash.

But Justice argues the state has history on its side, from Oakhurst Links to 101-year-old Old White, to the course bearing Sam Snead’s name. And the new course will serve as a living monument to Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Trevino.

“Why not have the U.S. Open in West Virginia?” Justice asked. “How could the USGA, how could they turn their back on these four icons, their course?

“We can do these things in West Virginia.”

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him on Twitter @dougsmock.

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