A year of preparation goes into making West Virginia’s largest sporting event camera-ready.
The Greenbrier was made for television. When you pull into the porte cochere, you can’t help but feel like you are walking into a Hollywood movie set. For the past five years, the six-story white Georgian resort and its surrounding manicured grounds, perfectly adorned with Technicolor blooms, has become an ethereal backdrop to one of the most prestigious televised sporting events: The Greenbrier Classic, a PGA TOUR FedEx Cup tournament.
Since owner Jim Justice first sealed the deal that brought the PGA TOUR to The Greenbrier, the event has introduced millions of people to West Virginia’s grand resort. This past summer alone nearly 3 million people watched the final round of The Greenbrier Classic on television. “This is what we want the rest of the world to see,” says state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette. “This whole tournament is an incredible commercial for the state of West Virginia.” Whether you are experiencing The Greenbrier through the small screen or strolling the fairways in person, it’s easy to marvel at the magic. But what the world and the guests don’t see is the inconceivable amount of work and planning that goes into pulling it all off.
One person wmho knows the challenges well is Monte Ortel, executive tournament director. He says, “People think it just happens, and then that’s it. But it is a 12-month planning cycle to make sure it goes off seamlessly. It is a lot of hard work.”
A PGA TOUR event is unique among major sporting events. “We don’t have a fixed stadium to work with. We have to create the infrastructure to support the event—tents, power, air conditioning, fencing, restrooms, and the list goes on and on,” Monte says. “Everything is temporary. It takes a lot of man-hours to plan, coordinate, and implement.”
Planning for the following year begins before the current tournament even takes place. Monte says it takes 75 to 90 days to implement the operational build-out alone. Bleachers are brought in, tents constructed, understructures built, signage created, fairways roped and staked, and restrooms added. When its all said and done more than 50 outside vendors are used to help prepare The Old White TPC for the onslaught of golfers, families, fans, and media coverage.
And the preparation side is just one component. “The tournament itself is one huge event, but in each day there are multiple other special events. It’s a big puzzle. It seems to come across seamlessly because of hard work and dedication, but there are hundreds of moving parts,” Monte says. Those moving parts include things like marketing and advertising, food service, the securing of sponsorships, ticket sales, the coordination of volunteers, the management of the concerts, player services, housekeeping, and grounds preparation.
The Greenbrier grounds team work for months readying the course. They are beholden to the weather—remember the derecho of 2012—and have to be able to react to unforeseen events. “There’s a gorgeous Greenbrier logo surrounded by flowers near the 18th hole. That lettering is done with green and white sand. If we have a downpour, we need to get in there and repair the sand,” says Kelly Shumate. “Lots of rain makes for muddy walkways, so we need to contend with things like that, too—but really most of our hard work is completed prior to the event.”
During the tournament, The Greenbrier is at full capacity. So while everyone is buzzing about the resort, the housekeeping crew works hard to make sure rooms and public spaces remain clean to the resort’s exacting standards and guests are comfortable. They are masters at maintaining privacy and seclusion. They even keep tabs on how the golfers are doing: If one of their guests isn’t going to make the cut, chances are that golfer will be leaving early, and staff will be prepared to turn the room around quickly. With a waiting list a mile long, there are always people to fill empty rooms.
Even getting the players to the resort is a massive undertaking. Most players fly into either the Roanoke Regional Airport or the Greenbrier Valley Airport. Ford Motor Company, one of the sponsors of the event, provides 107 player courtesy cars. The Greenbrier has a volunteer committee that manages the allotment of cars, making sure each player, his family, and caddies get to where they need to be.
Ask any player and he’ll quickly tell you The Greenbrier Classic is unique among stops on the PGA TOUR. Monte is proud of that designation. He says, “It doesn’t matter if it is the player or player’s family, or general patron, or vendors, or media, what makes us unique is that we create a memorable experience that our guests don’t get anywhere else. We provide unique accommodations and tons of amenities.”
This past year, The Greenbrier had 110 PGA children—a record number—utilizing the childcare program. “Players love to bring their families to The Greenbrier,” Monte says. “It’s an opportunity they don’t have on other stops on the tour.”
Tiger Woods, who made his second appearance at The Classic this year, says The Greenbrier is one of his favorite spots on the tour. “What’s not to love here?” he says. “This is a great place to bring kids. There are so many amenities. It’s a special place.” Bubba Watson loves it so much that he built a house at The Greenbrier Sporting Club. When asked if he felt like a West Virginian now, without hesitation he responded, “Absolutely. Who wouldn’t want to be a West Virginian? This is the best place in the country to live. My family loves it here.”
A behind-the-scenes tour includes The Greenbrier’s greenhouses, where thousands of plants are grown. During The Classic, the Candy Maker stays busy making white chocolate golf balls. Two indoor tennis courts are transformed into a state-of-the-art media center that serves more than 400 media professionals.The laundry facilities makes sure the uniforms of employees are in top shape. A small outdoor garden produces vegetables that are served at the Forum. Housekeepers generally serve around 13 rooms each. The tonnage of laundry that flows through The Greenbrier is staggering. Housekeepers take great pride in their work, leaving personal notes for their guests.
No PGA TOUR event could happen without volunteers. At The Greenbrier Classic more than 1,400 people offer up their services. They come from every corner of West Virginia and more than 27 states. Tournament Coordinator Jim Sweetwood says, “It is so impressive to get that many people to volunteer to do something for nothing. It’s an interesting mix of people made up of those who have a great love of the state, expats who’ve moved away but want to come back to support the state, people who grew up in this area, and people who just love The Greenbrier. They give up time, resources, and energy to work with us because they want to see this event and the state represented well. It would be near impossible to do it without them.”
Volunteers deal with everything from ticket collection to assisting spectators to player and sponsor services. There are even volunteers that do nothing but assist volunteers. “One of the most unsung groups is comprised of seven people who deal with supply distribution,” Jim says. “Thousands of packages are mailed or shipped to the event. This group makes sure that each package gets to each player at the right time. This is hugely important. All these players do is travel. They can only take so much on the plane. Our team is awesome. We’ve never lost a package.”
Jim points out that most stops on the PGA TOUR are in more metropolitan areas and 80 percent of the volunteers live within two hours of the event. But in West Virginia, it’s the opposite. Here 80 percent of volunteers live more than two hours away. “That’s extraordinarily impressive,” says Jim. “The dedication they have to this event is truly inspiring.”
Not only have the volunteers impressed the PGA, but the local community has also embraced the tournament with amazing hospitality. One of the volunteers organized a house-a-caddy program. More than 90 caddies found rooms in homes in the surrounding area. “The house-a-caddy program is really cool. The locals established relationships with the caddies and now they come back year after year and stay with the same people,” Jim says.
It’s hard to believe that, in just five years, The Greenbrier Classic has become an economic driver and marketing machine for the entire region. Monte says, “We need to remember the success of this event and impact on the state and surrounding region came from the vision and commitment of one individual—Jim Justice. It was his dream, and he made it a reality. That should not ever be overlooked.”
Nor should the exorbitant amount of effort it takes to create this five-star event be overlooked. Thousands and thousands of people work together to create an event that showcases West Virginia in a positive light to the world. When Jim Justice brought the PGA TOUR to The Greenbrier, he hit a hole in one.
written by and photographed by Nikki Bowman