By Cam Huffman
— Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series counting down the top five local sports stories of 2012. We’ll be counting down with one story each day, culminating with the release of the top local sports story of the year on Dec. 31.
The first year had concerts, drama and the excitement of something new. The second year had all that plus a Lefty, but it was still missing a Tiger. The 2012 Greenbrier Classic had it all.
After earning the distinction of “Best in Class Tournament on the PGA TOUR” in 2011, it was almost impossible to expect the 2012 edition to continue the trend of topping the previous year. But it did.
The excitement started nearly two months before the tournament began when golf’s biggest star, Tiger Woods, committed to make his first trip to the Greenbrier Classic.
“This tournament, since its inception, has been absolutely incredible,” Woods said before the start of the tournament in July. “I knew about the history of (the resort) from Sam and how much he loved coming here and loved being here.”
“Tiger Woods being here puts the spotlight on (West Virginia) even more,” added Greenbrier chairman and CEO Jim Justice. “It’s like a merit badge in a way, and he’ll be here for six days.”
He was supposed to be, anyway. The actual stay was just four days.
Woods — along with the man who is perhaps the sport’s second-biggest star, Phil Mickelson, who played in the tournament for the second straight year — missed the cut and played only two practice rounds and two competitive rounds. He was on a plane headed out of Greenbrier County by Friday night.
That was one of a couple of major hurdles the 2012 Greenbrier Classic had to clear.
The other was a catastrophic storm that blew through the area, and across the state of West Virginia, just three days before the course opened for Monday practice rounds.
Somewhere between 30 and 50 trees were down around The Old White TPC course, including a 200-year-old sycamore tree on the 16th green and oaks on the 18th tee.
“When I got here that night, I could tell it was terrible,” said Justice. “It was too dark to see much. But when I came back early Saturday morning, all my worst fears were confirmed.”
By Monday, though, it was like the storm, which knocked out power across the state for days, and even weeks in some places, never hit the famed White Sulphur Springs resort.
Staff and volunteers came to the course ready to help, and after some sleepless nights and plenty of hard work, the course was ready for golf’s biggest stars.
“I told everyone that we didn’t want to just patch things together,” said Justice. “We had to put it back together like it was before (the storm). My mandate was to say, “We’re not going to quit. We want people that come Monday to see it as though (the storm) never happened.
“We got a great response from volunteers and our people are real troopers.”
Losing Woods two days early and battling through one of the biggest storms the Mountain State has ever experienced could have put a damper on the tournament, but that never happened.
Huge crowds showed up for all three practice rounds and the four competitive rounds, and there were plenty of intriguing stories along the way.
It started with veteran golfer Vijay Singh, who shot a 63 to take the opening round lead and bring back memories of his three major wins — two PGA Championship victories and the 2000 Masters title. The second day headlines were dominated by Woods and Mickelson missing the cut, but U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson moved to the front, creating some intrigue and a new face for the galleries to follow.
Simpson stayed in the lead through Saturday’s third round, while many unknowns flirted with the top spot and a chance to make a name for themselves by beating out the big names.
Sunday was filled with drama and storylines. Controversial star, and Greenbrier Classic fan favorite, John Daly made a run toward the top, while Simpson stumbled. Fans flocked to the demonstrative Arkansas native in the bright pants, cheering him on to a tie for 12th — after moving into the top 5 for a short time.
In the end, though, 28-year-old Ted Potter Jr. stole the show.
With an eagle on No. 17 and a birdie on No. 18, the Ocala, Fla., native forced a playoff with Troy Kelly before winning the tournament, his first PGA TOUR victory, on the third sudden death hole.
“It’s just an amazing feeling right now,” said Potter. “Just knowing I’ve got a couple more years out here to have full exemption, to be able to schedule my own tournaments and where I want to play is going to be nice. I’m looking forward to that.”
Away from the course, there were concerts to entertain — Toby Keith was the headliner on Independence Day, while Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart, The Fray and Bon Jovi also performed throughout the week — and plenty of assistance from tournament officials and participants to those in the area impacted by the storm.
Despite the setbacks, Justice and The Greenbrier were able to put on another memorable show and achieve his goal of putting a positive spotlight on West Virginia.
“You wouldn't believe the people that come up to me with tears in their eyes and say, ‘Thanks for making me proud to be a West Virginian,’” said Justice. “I love this state beyond belief, and that’s always been my goal. I just want the everyday person who comes to feel like they have a part in the tournament.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.