News & Opinion

Greenbrier snaps to attention for tribute

The American flag hung limply, like a ghost in the early-morning fog here Wednesday

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The American flag hung limply, like a ghost in the early-morning fog here Wednesday. Oh, say can you see? Just barely. The dawn’s early light took a backseat to the dawn’s pearly mist.

It was no ordinary Wednesday on the PGA Tour. This was A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, which sounds less like a golf tournament and more like a war-themed Broadway musical.

I also was reminded that it was no ordinary Wednesday once I rode the shuttle bus from the parking lot and reached the security tent. There, I walked through a metal detector and opened my backpack so the pockets could be checked. “Sorry,” the security man apologized as he scrutinized my laptop and other items, “but we’ve got to be extra careful today. It’s 9/11.”

Bubba Watson, Greenbrier
Bubba Watson hails A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier as ‘not just another week on the PGA Tour.’

Ah, that. A simple mention brings back horrible images and, of course, a flashback to where you were when you first heard about the planes hitting the Twin Towers on that day in 2001.

Bubba Watson was a student at the University of Georgia at the time. He got a phone call from his mother a few minutes after the first strike. He hadn’t heard about the planes. She told him to turn on the news. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, well past 9 a.m., his mom suddenly asked, “Don’t you have a class at 8 o’clock?”

Bubba, stumbling, said, “Uhhh … it was canceled.” Moms aren’t so easily fooled. “I remember that day vividly,” Watson said. “I saw the second plane hit. We were living a nightmare. It was a doubly sad day. Mom caught me skipping class, and obviously the worst tragedy was watching that [9/11] happen.”

Wednesday made A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier the most appropriate place for the PGA Tour to stand at attention. A Military Tribute, formerly the Greenbrier Classic, was designed to celebrate America’s heroes on Fourth of July week. When the PGA Tour shortened its season, A Military Tribute moved to the fall and the opening date on the 2019-20 schedule (tee times). Did it ask for the 9/11 date? No, I was told; that was just a fortuitous coincidence.

At 8:46 a.m., the same time when terrorists delivered the first plane into the North Tower, a horn sounded Wednesday at the Greenbrier Resort. A moment of silence ensued. Everyone stopped what they were doing, even players warming up on the adjacent practice range. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, whose company also owns the resort, stood by his golf cart near the gallery ropes around the 18th green, red hat in hand. A busload of Greenbrier County schoolchildren who had rushed down a greenside slope to crowd around Justice a few moments earlier, quieted and stood still.

The silence hung as uneasily as the fog. The horn sounded again.

Tournament director Robert Harris made a brief introduction via a microphone. Jeff Bryant, the county school superintendent, sounded taps on a trumpet. Then Makiah Brown, a former New York Police Department officer, sang a moving a capella rendition of “God Bless America.”

Watson stood 20 feet away with several other officials, including Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and the first head of Homeland Security. Watson moved his lips and softly sang along, all the while blinking back apparent tears. Later, he conceded, “I cried out there listening to that lady singing ‘God Bless America.’ I tear up every time I hear it or the national anthem, out of joy and thankfulness for how blessed we are. I think about the freedoms we have.”

Watson is emblematic of what A Military Tribute is about and how it has tried to set itself apart from other PGA Tour stops.

His father, Gerry, was an Army Special Forces lieutenant who served in Vietnam. So, Watson always has felt a special military connection. His father died in 2010 without telling his son any stories about what he did in the war.

“He always just said he was ‘overseas’; that’s how he worded it,” Watson said. “He never told me where. He thought it was his job to do it. He also saw it as a need-to-know-basis, and I definitely didn’t need to know.”

His dad was wounded in action and had a scar under his right eye, Watson said, and carried grenade shrapnel in his back. After Gerry Watson’s death, the family retrieved a shrapnel shard from his body and kept it in his honor.

“This is not just another week on the PGA Tour,” Watson said. “When you walk through the hotel, even the colors and the way it’s decorated are because of history. The Congress and the government was here; they built the [underground] bunker. All the history here is about protection. So, this is not just another tournament. It’s about remembrance and being thankful.”

The current Greenbrier Resort, built in 1913 by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, is on 11,000 acres that includes the Old White TPC course used for this week’s tournament. The resort also houses a formerly secret underground bunker constructed during the Cold War as an emergency shelter for Congress in case of nuclear attack. It once was stocked with 30 years of supplies. Now it’s open for tours.

The bunker is out of sight, but there are plenty of visual reminders that this week is a military tribute. A camo-painted military helicopter is parked right of the par-3 18th hole in a “Miss Saigon” kind of staging. It’s from the Air National Guard. Last year, it was needed and flew out on Wednesday. As of late Wednesday, it still was here.

Each branch of the military and first responders has a flag flying on a pole around the putting green, near the American flag. In downtown White Sulphur Springs, light posts are festooned with banners that feature pictures of men and women who lost their lives in service, with their names and years.

Tournament tickets are free. Spectators must sign up to obtain them, and when they do, they can list their favorite military member or first responder as an “everyday hero” on the form. Those heroes’ names are put on the Wall of Honor, which is located next to the practice range. When I visited it Tuesday afternoon, a dozen actual service members, in camo uniforms and boots, were lined up at the concession tent next door. I am confident that they didn’t have to pay full price – bottle of water, $4; ice cream bar, $5; beer, $8. I also saw several spectators taking pictures of the wall, probably to show their “hero” that his or her name is on display. It’s a nice touch.

There’s more. Those heroes’ names are put into prize drawings. One hero’s ticket will be pulled for a $50,000 prize Saturday. For every birdie on the par-3 18th hole, for instance, a name will be drawn and awarded $1,000. For every eagle at 17, a hero will win $2,500.

Other prizes included drawings for sports experiences. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a frequent Greenbrier golfing guest, donated Cardinals tickets and a pregame meet-and-greet. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton made a similar donation. The Saints held pre-season training camp in the area for several years.

Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University basketball coach and West Point alumnus who served as a captain in the Army, donated Duke tickets and a pre-game meet and greet. I hope the winner is a North Carolina fan, just for irony’s sake. Some tickets for a Duke-North Carolina basketball game are another donated prize.

Wednesday morning, though, was about offering respect. A few hundred spectators gathered around the 18th for the ceremony. While Brown neared the end of her song, rumbling was heard in the distance. She continued singing as the sound neared, and four F-18 jets rumbled overhead, obviously not as low as they would have flown if the fog hadn’t hung around.

“They’ll be back next year,” Harris announced. “Maybe we’ll see ’em then.”

There was applause, the ceremony ended, a tear-eyed Watson went over to shake hands with the emcee, the singer and the trumpet player, and so the first tournament of the new PGA Tour season was underway.

It was only the pro-am day, but as you can tell, it was no ordinary Wednesday.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle