WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. - West Virginia's Greenbrier Resort was voted the number one golf resort in the world by Conde Nast Traveler readers (June 2002 issue), the largest poll of its kind.
This accolade is accepted with Southern-style humility by the folks at "America's Resort." They're accustomed to praise, including grand titles such as "Best Resort in the U.S." (2002) and "Resort of the Century" (1999) bestowed by Harpers' Hideaway Report. Kudos seems to make them strive harder for perfection. Not a uniform is rumpled, nor a flower wilted, nor a plate cold.
The Greenbrier has been serving guests for more than 200 years, employing generations of staff members from the quiet town of White Sulphur Springs. Politeness and genuine hospitality seem to be inherited traits.
Every U.S. president who plays golf has played at the Greenbrier, which has three world-class layouts. Most of the world's top golfers have been here, too, dating back to World War I, when Bobby Jones and his contemporaries played in Red Cross fund-raisers hosted by the resort.
One golfing icon who made an indelible mark on the Greenbrier was golf great Sam Snead, who died in May 2002. The resort's golf pro emeritus since 1993, Snead was a familiar figure at the Sam Snead Golf Academy, dispensing homespun wisdom and demonstrating his own beautiful swing, or riding around the courses, his dog perched beside him in the cart. But, says director of golf Robert Harris, Snead left enough stories to keep guests laughing for generations to come.
Sam's stories are part of the Greenbrier's considerable golf legacy, and it is not without a certain awe that most golfers tee it up on Sam's favorite, the par 70, 6,640-yard Old White Course. Opened in 1913 (when Sam was a year old), the Old White was designed by the most famous architect of the day, Charles Blair Macdonald, who modeled several holes after legendary European holes. The virtually unchanged route has mature trees lining generous, slightly rolling fairways, and sculpted, sloping greens loaded with subtleties. There are plenty of opportunities to roll a ball onto the green, a luxury absent on the Greenbrier Course.
By 1922, when the resort called upon Seth Raynor and George O'Neil to craft the Greenbrier Course, 10-year-old Snead was playing golf with a hand-carved tree limb, rocks and a course of tomato cans buried in the family farmyard.
Jack Nicklaus redesigned the Greenbrier Course for the 1979 Ryder Cup, creating thought-provoking situations on nearly every hole. It was also the Solheim Cup venue in 1994. The par 72, 6,709-yard layout is heavily wooded, and most greens can only be reached by an airborne approach over sand to terraced, fast surfaces. Despite its tactical toughness, the route is beautiful. The fifth tee, the highest point on all three courses, offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. From the ninth tee you can see the Allegheny Mountain pass through, which the Midland Trail once carried settlers west.
Until 1999, the Greenbrier was probably the "must play" course if you were unfortunate enough to have time for only one of the resort's very different options. The choice became tougher when the old Dick Wilson-designed Lakeside Course was transformed by Robert Cupp into the Meadows in 1999. This was a third reincarnation for the course, which began in 1910 as nine holes designed by Alex Findlay in a stream valley always known as "the meadows."
"The problem with Lakeside was that it had four or five bland, easy holes and several awkward holes, holes that didn't set up right," says golf director Harris. "If you hit a nice shot you might find yourself 20 feet under a tree. Holes doglegged in the wrong place or the tree line didn't make sense or the trees had grown. We gave it an entirely new look and a new name."
"It may be the toughest of the three courses now," he adds. "Not to take away from the Greenbrier Course, Nicklaus' Ryder Cup design, but the Meadows is comparable if you're playing from the gold or blue tees."
The renovation added two news holes (11 and 12) with water and three greens (2, 12 and 17) now fronted with stone walls. The par 70 route has been stretched to almost 6,800 yards, and the bunkering is much more menacing.
Sam Snead's trademark straw hat and devilish grin are no longer in evidence, but his innate golfing wisdom ("If you don't have that swing, it don't mean a thing.") is still an integral part of the program at the Sam Snead Golf Academy. There's an easy synergy between his methods and the school's John Jacobs approach, and the instructors are savvy professionals with a little bit of Sam in them. They all have the knack of improving players' skills while keeping the drills entertaining and fun.
"Sam placed emphasis on skills that made him great - the tempo and rhythm in his swing and his very light grip pressure," says Harris. "These two things are also swing keys in the John Jacobs approach."
The 2,000-square-foot academy blends easily into The Greenbrier's Southern architectural milieu, with fluted columns, shady porches, and awnings which cover six all-weather teaching stations. Inside is a lounge, a self-service food-and-beverage area, restrooms and a video editing room. It's simple but tastefully done, which is the Greenbrier way.
You could spend all of your waking hours on one of the three courses or in the clubhouse. The halls are lined with historic photos of visiting golfers, Snead's trophies still gleam from their display cases, and his presence is felt in the "Slammin's Sammy's" sports bar and the elegant Sam Snead's Restaurant overlooking the courses.
But there is so much more to the 6,500-acre resort - 50 activities besides golf, including mountain biking, horseback riding, sporting clays, fly-fishing with Orvis experts, even a short course in the ancient art of falconry. There's a world-class spa and wonderful swimming pools indoors (largest in the world in 1912) and out.
The historic tours of the hotel and grounds are great. Hear how the hotel escaped destruction during the Civil War and served as a military hospital and internment camp for Germans during World War II. Then fast-forward to 1958, when President Eisenhower ordered the construction of an 112,000-square-foot underground bunker to house Congress in the event of a national crisis. The installation was in constant "ready" status until 1995, when a Washington Post reporter revealed a secret well kept by a community for nearly 40 years. Visitors today can tour the Cold War bunker, a chilling relic of that era.
Lodging and dining at the Greenbrier are flawless. While most guests prefer to be in the main hotel close to the shops and restaurants, the Spring Row cottages provide a more intimate experience just a short walk from the main hotel. It will only take one breakfast served on your verandah overlooking the gardens and lawns to confirm that.
The main dining room of the hotel is vast, chandeliered, and elegant, with fine musicians playing. A quieter, cozier place to dine is the Tavern Room downstairs, where banquets separate you from other diners. In either place, the food and wine are outstanding and beautifully served.
"Style" and "class" are much-abused words, often implying exclusion - but in their truer sense both apply to the Greenbrier. Part of the resort's appeal is that the staff makes every guest feel special, whether he is one of the 26 American Presidents or assorted royalty who have lodged here, or just someone looking for an extraordinary golf vacation.
Other hotels may match its luxury, but few can equal The Greenbrier's style.
300 West Main Street
White Sulphur Springs
West Virginia 24986
July 7, 2002