Rich Stevens: Classic has way of turning PGA ranks upside-down
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Who would have thought the Old White TPC, a course with a par 3 finishing hole and claims one of five 18-hole scores of 59, would befuddle some of the world's top golfers?
Greenbrier Owner Jim Justice said you have to let the course come to you, rather than regularly attack the par 70, 7,287-yard course. Pick your spots, he says.
Well, the guy who could sell ice water to Eskimos might be on to something.
Since Stuart Appleby's 22-under gem in 2010, changes have turned Charles Blair Macdonald's masterpiece into a challenge.
The 72-hole scores have been solid and the two tournaments since its Classic inauguration have produced two first-time PGA Tour champions - relative unknowns Scott Stallings in 2011 and Ted Potter Jr. in 2012.
Stallings shot a 10-under 270 two years ago, and Potter went to 16-under to win last year.
But, the veterans have either dropped off down the stretch or weren't there long enough to stretch.
Phil Mickelson has 41 PGA Tour victories to place ninth all time, but he hasn't played on a weekend at the Old White TPC in two tries.
Get this, his miss in 2011 was the only tournament in 21 events he missed the cut. It was one of three last year. Those kind of stats can give the Old White TPC mythical status.
Webb Simpson, who was third-from-last in the first Classic - yea, he shot a 150 in two rounds to miss the cut in 2010 - squandered a one-stroke lead entering the final nine holes the last two years.
That 2010 cut ended a season-high five consecutive made cuts. He has two top 10 finishes the last two years, joining only Brendon de Jonge and Jimmy Walker as players who have finished in the top 10 two of the Classic's three years.
The drama that makes the tournament so intriguing can be credited to the two finishing holes - No. 17 and No. 18.
Among 77 players in the final round last year, the average was under par on those two holes, giving players a chance to make up ground. The finishes by Stallings in 2011 - a birdie on No. 18 and another on No. 18 in the playoff - and Potter in 2012 - an eagle on No. 17 and birdie on No. 18 - are all the evidence you need.
Nobody is sure what will happen this year. The greens are going to be more firm, which could bump the scores another shot or two - expect a 17 or 18 under to be the winning score on Sunday.
As for who will win, the Classic's brief history doesn't give a clue, but let's have some fun with this.
First, it'll be a player who never has won a PGA Tour event. While Appleby won in 2010 for his ninth Tour victory, the course was altogether different that year. The last two were claimed by strong finishes from Stallings and Potter.
Let's narrow the field to guys who never have won a PGA Tour event but have improved at the Classic:
* Ricky Barnes - He finished T78 in 2010, then T39 and T38 in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
* Graham DeLaet - Finished T45 in 2010 and, after skipping a year, was T12 last year.
* Martin Flores - Skipped a year like DeLaet, but made the leap from missing the cut in 2010 to finishing sixth last year.
* David Hearn - Didn't participate in 2010, but went from T18 to T12 last two years.
* Charlie Wi - Another leap. Wi didn't play in 2011, but went from T60 three years ago to T3 last year.
I know these guys aren't greyhounds, but, much like dog races, it's how you finish that counts, right? Let's look at how those guys played No. 17 and No. 18.
* Barnes - Birdied No. 17 or No. 18 in the last two rounds the last two years.
* DeLaet - Shot 4-under on No. 17 and No. 18 last year.
* Flores - Shot 3-under on those holes last year.
* Hearn - Shot 3-under on same holes.
* Wi - An eagle on No. 17 in last year's final round helped him finish strong with a 65.
Of course, you have to consider the season they're having.
* Barnes - Has missed 11 cuts in 20 events this season. If he makes the cut at the Classic, it'll mark a season-high three consecutive cuts made.
* DeLaet - Made cuts in every event but three this year, making him an intriguing pick.
* Flores - Seven missed cuts this year.
* Hearn - Four consecutive made cuts, including three top 25s entering the Classic.
* Wi - Played well at the AT&T National after only two top 25 finishes this year.
Finally, the prediction using about as much science as I know ... none.
David Hearn will win the 2013 Greenbrier Classic. He's having a good year and has two top 20 finishes in White Sulphur Springs.
Also, the Canadian has just one bogey in each of the final rounds the last two years. His confidence seems to be building with every year. In 2011, he had only one birdie on the back nine of round four, but played it 2-under last year with three birdies and one bogey. You don't win tournaments by sitting and watching everyone else pass you by.
If that sounds crazy, it isn't much worse than my picking Mickelson to win last year.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4837.