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Permanence Prevails at the Home of Snead

By: George Fuller


It's nice to know in this furiously changing world that some things are exactly as they were when last you left them. Not just that they are still in the same place, but the smells, the ambiance and, in the case of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., even many of the people are the same.

That's part of the charm of the place. There are quite a few members of the 40-Year Club, and many employees who represent the second generation to have worked at this elegant resort in the peaceful mountains of West Virginia. What it adds up to is a sense of being welcomed into a large family and a much-needed sense of permanence in a transitory world.

Of course, the one person around longest was Samuel Jackson Snead, who was hired as the Greenbrier's golf professional in 1936 – at $45 per month plus room and board – and who remained golf professional emeritus until his death on May 23, 2002. Throughout his many years on the PGA Tour, these colorful mountains were home to Slammin' Sam, who grew up not too many miles away.

No place is quite like it. In addition to three outstanding golf courses, there are indoor and outdoor tennis courts, an excellent equestrian program, a recently expanded spa, even an in-house bowling alley. Other recreational programs include trap and skeet shooting, a falconry academy, a Land Rover Driving School and a lawn bowling center.

In the evenings after high tea, guests gather in the formal Main Dining Room, in the newly renovated Tavern Room or in Sam Snead's at the Golf Course for a wonderful dining experience.

Despite there being so much else to do, it is as a golf resort that The Greenbrier is best known. Though today there are three highly manicured championship courses, in 1910 there was but a rough course cut out of some nearby pastureland. It was not until 1913 that the first championship course was opened at The Greenbrier, known for years as the Number One Course. A Charles Blair Macdonald design, many of the holes on the course were modeled after famous European holes: No. 8 was based on the Redan at North Berwick, No. 13 on the Alps at Prestwick and No. 15 on the Eden at St. Andrews. The course was later renamed the Old White Course and it is by that name it is known today.

The Greenbrier Course was added in 1924, also designed by C.B. Macdonald and his engineer Seth Raynor. It was on the Greenbrier Course that Snead had one of the finest moments of his golfing career. It occurred during the 1959 Greenbrier Open, an event which he had already won four times. After two rounds of 68 and 69, Snead was in second place behind Dutch Harrison. But on the third day something special happened.

"It was on the 12th that I began to realize something wonderful," he later recalled. "I could feel in my gut that the yips had, for once, decided to leave me be. It was a high feeling, a confident feeling." His confidence led him to shoot a remarkable score of 59, playing the last seven holes at 7-under par.

The next day he shot a 63 to win the tournament with a total of 259. Today, the Greenbrier Course plays as a Jack Nicklaus redesign of that original Macdonald/Raynor layout. Reopened in 1978 in time to host the 1979 Ryder Cup Matches, this course has all the appearances of a gentleman: It's not too long, playing only 6,675 yards from the back tees, with generous landing areas, reachable par-5s, five par-3s and short par-4s.

But appearances here are deceiving. Though it may look like a gentleman, it plays like a scalawag. Small greens are tightly guarded by sand and, on a few holes, water; thick rough ensnares your ball if you get off the fairways; and putting surfaces feature both speed and slope. One hole is even named "Biarritz" after the ski slope-steep valley in the center of the green. Another hole is named "Sahara" for the moat of sand surrounding the green.

The third course, recently remodeled by architect Bob Cupp, is called the Meadows Course. The longest of the three layouts at 6,807 yards, the Meadows is wide off the tee and features receptive greens, making for well-rounded resort golf.

All three layouts are visually spectacular, their fairways lined by mature trees with the surrounding Allegheny Mountains dominating the view plane. If you visit in the fall when the leaves are turning various shades of amber and gold, the effect is even more satisfying.

One of the newest additions to The Greenbrier is the Sam Snead Golf Academy, where guests can sign up for a one-hour tune-up before a tee time, or a three-day school, which allows a more in-depth evaluation of your game.

An amusing story is told about how Snead was almost fired during his first week on the job. As Greenbrier historian Robert Conte writes in his fascinating book, “The History of the Greenbrier,” "On the fifth tee of the Old White Course, (Snead) let loose one of his legendary drives that flew the complete 335 yards to the green. Unfortunately, the ball arrived at precisely the moment Alva Bradley (owner of the Cleveland Indians and, more importantly, a member of the C&O Railway board of directors, which then owned the property) bent over to pick up his own ball. Snead's ball caught Bradley right on the rump. 'It was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie the way the man jolted up.' "

Snead recalled years later, "The golf staff and the general manager were called together and Bradley angrily demanded that the ill-mannered young fairway sniper be properly punished. When it was explained that the offending shot was not Snead's second, but his tee shot, Bradley snorted 'Impossible!'

"So a demonstration was arranged, and much to the C&O director's amazement Snead repeated his feat. 'Jumping Judas,' yelled Bradley. 'Wait'll I tell Babe Ruth.' So began one of the most fabulous careers in the history of golf."

There are so many similar stories about The Greenbrier that discovering them is part of the fun of the place.

The Greenbrier is an elegant, Old World hotel that has seen presidents, dukes, diplomats, golf and tennis greats, movie stars and society types pass through its sturdy, white brick gates over the years. It was, for many years of the 20th century, one of the places to see and be seen on the East Coast. Families such as the Vanderbilts, Kennedys, Pulitzers, Rockefellers, Bloomingdales and Guggenheims frequented the resort. But more importantly, it has also played host to thousands of people just like you and me. People who go there for sport, spa and rejuvenation.

In addition to golf, guests can explore 6,500 acres of hiking and biking trails, paths that stroll past the original sulfur spring that lured people here in the first place in quest of its healing powers, and a beautiful mountain setting that, right in the face of this furiously changing world, makes you relax and remember that life is about places exactly like The Greenbrier. It may be true, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, that you can't go home again. But you can always return to a place that may just be one step better: The Greenbrier.

For more information or a tee time at The Greenbrier, call 800/624-6070 or 304/536-1110.

Photographer and writer George Fuller has been covering golf and adventure travel for more than 15 years. His assignments have taken him throughout the United States, Asia, Polynesia, Europe and Mexico.

As an author, he has eight books to his credit, the two most recent being “California Golf – The Complete Guide” (11th edition, 2004, Avalon Travel Publishing) and “Discover Hawaii’s Best Golf” (second edition December 2001, Island Heritage Publishing). Others include “Hawaii: Adventures In Nature,” (October 1999, John Muir Publishing).

A former editor of “LINKS – The Best of Golf,” he has contributed stories to many newspapers and magazines, including TIME, San Francisco Chronicle, Coastal Living, GOLF Magazine, Travel & Leisure Golf and others. Based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., George is a monthly travel correspondent for the PGA Tour (pgatour.com), and a Contributing Editor to The Golfer.