The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

The Greenbrier Classic

July 7, 2014

Final day brings strong play

Distracted by family illness, George McNeill shoots 61

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — George McNeill took the tee at The Old White TPC Sunday morning simply looking to finish his round — and The Greenbrier Classic — as soon as possible.

McNeill’s older sister, Michele, was losing a battle with cancer, and he’d already withdrawn from next week’s John Deere Classic to go home and be with his family. Before his round, McNeill’s mom informed him that Michele, 46, wasn’t going to make it much longer. Admittedly, golf was the last thing on his mind when McNeill pulled out a club and looked over the Greenbrier Valley.

“You go out and golf doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said. “It’s hard. I have been playing OK this week, but there are some things going on elsewhere.”

But after three straight pars to begin his final round, McNeill, who started the day at 5-under-par in 19th place, saw things start to change.

It started with a birdie on the par-4 fourth, and then came birdies at 5, 6 and 7. Next came the highlight of the day, an ace on the par-3 eighth.

“It was playing at a perfect number,” he said in describing his second hole-in-one on the PGA Tour and seventh overall. “It was about 220 (yards) to the pin, which is a 4-iron for me. I just hit it right against the slope. I saw it rolling left and didn’t pay too much attention. I was just hoping it wasn’t going to gain too much speed. The crowd started getting a little louder, and then they jumped out of their seats and I knew. It’s not something you can really plan on, but it’s nice when it happens.

“Four birdies in a row and a hole-in-one, that doesn’t hurt any round. I’ve never seen anybody get upset about that.”

McNeill finished the front nine in 28 strokes and then picked up three birdies on the back for a 9-under round of 61 that gave him the clubhouse lead at 14-under-par.

“I’ve been playing OK this week,” he said of the best round of his professional career. “I’ve been hitting the ball nicely. I didn’t really take advantage of a whole lot of putts (Saturday). I played good last week in Washington (D.C). I can’t say I saw a 61 coming. But I saw 3, 4, 5, 6 under. It obviously went a little lower than that.

“My mind was elsewhere for a long time. I started making a few birdies, but I still didn’t think about it a whole lot. I was just trying to play golf and get through a round. I have a long day ahead of me.”

McNeill then spent the next two hours waiting and watching to see if his score would be enough. When Angel Cabrera birdied the par-5 17th to move to 16-under, McNeill knew his chances of a win were over, but he received a huge consolation prize — a spot in the Open Championship in two weeks.

 

Greenbrier Classic pro emeritus Tom Watson shot a 1-under 69 Sunday to finish the week at 4-under-par at 64 years of age.

“It was a good week,” said the United States Ryder Cup captain. “I was very happy about the way that I played, especially the way I putted. I made more short putts this week that I normally struggle with and don’t make. That’s the reason I scored pretty well.

“A 69 is not bad on this golf course for a guy my age.”

Watson also got a front row seat for one of two holes-in-one Sunday. He was waiting for his turn on the 18th tee when Bud Cauley, playing in the group in front of him, aced the 18th, rewarding every fan in the stands with a $100 bill, which Greenbrier owner Jim Justice passed out himself.

“I watched the shot go out, and I was like, man, that looks pretty good. That looks real good,” said Watson. “All of a sudden the arms go up, touchdown, and I knew it was in the hole. It was a great shot.”

 

When Webb Simpson bogeyed the par-3 18th Friday to finish the first two rounds at even-par, The Greenbrier Golf Ambassador headed for home in Charlotte, N.C., knowing that his score would not be enough to make the projected 1-under cut.

When that number changed, allowing a season-high 89 golfers to make the weekend — everybody not over par — Simpson, who had just landed when he learned the news, had to rent a car and hit the road back to West Virginia.

Simpson finished the last 27 holes of the tournament at 12-under-par and posted a score of 10-under for the tournament, ending the week alone in third place.

“If feels great to finish this tournament off, a tournament I love and sponsor that’s been great to me, with a good round and leave me with a good feeling for next year,” said Simpson. “I’ve always felt really comfortable on this golf course ever since I came here in 2010. And I never pieced together four good rounds. Hopefully next year I can continue what I’ve done the last 24 hours.”

 

McNeill wasn’t the only golfer who earned a spot in the Open Championship thanks to the new Open qualifying procedures that awarded the top four Greenbrier Classic finishers who were in the top 12 and not already qualified with a spot. Along with McNeill, Chris Stroud, Cameron Tringale and Billy Hurley III earned a ticket to Royal Liverpool.

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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The Greenbrier Classic