Editor’s note: This story, which gives an in-depth look at how The Greenbrier Resort became a top destination and PGA Tour stop after years of neglect, originally ran in GolfGetaways magazine.
Back in January 2013, more than three years after purchasing the fabled Greenbrier Resort from the CSX Railroad Company for $20.1 million and then spending hundreds of millions of dollars renovating the old place, West Virginian coal billionaire Jim Justice watched in sheer disbelief as AAA demoted his resort from one of America’s prestigious five-diamond properties to a four. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Forbes Travel Guide, formerly the Mobil Guide, continued to withhold the fifth star it had taken from the resort in 2000.
Justice, a native of Lewisburg who recently earned his 300th win as coach of both the Greenbrier East High School girls and boys basketball teams, was crestfallen, saying he felt sad for his staff who had worked so hard to earn five-star/diamond status. AAA doesn’t discuss its findings, but the problem, it turned out, was the size of the bathrooms in about 10 percent of its guest accommodations. Justice pointed out that current ratings are dominated by boutique hotels with maybe 12 or 15 larger suites, “not 700-room hotels dating back to 1778.”
He most certainly had a point. People these days prefer more space and up-to-date amenities, although one criterion that seems to be missing from the AAA’s rating standards — “Extraordinary physical attributes, meticulous personalized service, extensive amenities and impeccable standards of excellence” — is the sheer thrill of being a guest.
And that’s why there’s something very special about staying at “America’s Resort.” Yes, some of the bathrooms are a little smaller than what present-day hotels offer. And yes, the Carlton Varney-designed rooms (Varney was a protégé of Dorothy Draper, the famous interior designer who renovated the hotel after WWII when it was owned by the U.S. Army and used as a military hospital) though colorful and genteel, may not quite be to the hip traveler’s taste. But how wonderful it is to walk such historic corridors and, just for a brief moment in time, say you stayed where presidents, foreign dignitaries and all sorts of A-listers once did.
Betty Cutlip, marketing manager at the state’s Division of Tourism, says West Virginians have always been proud of The Greenbrier even in the dark, pre-Justice days when occupancy rates dropped disastrously low, half the staff was laid off and the resort was leaking $1 million per week. She also admits she had never heard of Justice when he bought the resort. “Of course, after learning his track record and bank account information, we were very happy with the news,” she says.
“Mr. Justice and the staff at The Greenbrier have accomplished a lot,” Cutlip says. “There’s really a positive vibe now, so much has changed.”
Perhaps the biggest change was construction of a 103,000-square-foot casino under the oval drive in front of the main hotel. Justice prefers to think of it more as an entertainment venue with nightly shows, highly-acclaimed dining and a champagne toast every evening with the Springhouse Entertainers dancing to the Greenbrier Waltz. The casino itself is an appealing mix of Monte Carlo elegance (men are required to wear a jacket after 7 p.m.) and Southern cordiality — “James Bond meets Gone With the Wind” as some have described it. There are 320 machines and 37 tables where you can play blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, three-card poker and Texas Hold ’em.
While the casino is certainly an exciting addition to The Greenbrier, the resort is best known for its golf — the hickory-only Oakhurst Links (built in 1884 and purchased by The Greenbrier in 2012); the Alex Finlay-designed and Dick Wilson and Bob Cupp-renovated Meadows Course; the Seth Raynor-designed and Jack Nicklaus-renovated Greenbrier Course; and the Charles Blair Macdonald-designed, Lester George-restored Old White Course, which opened in 1914 and became part of the Tournament Players Club Network in 2011. The resort celebrated Old White’s 100 years in 2014 and in 2019 will celebrate the 10thanniversary of hosting a regular PGA event — now dubbed A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
Old White begins with one of the most fun tee shots in the game, and the pleasure never lets up as Macdonald’s versions of the Alps, Redan, Biarritz, Short, Punchbowl, Eden and Cape holes highlight an extremely enjoyable round in a beautiful setting.
Playing Old White may be the highlight of a golf trip to West Virginia, but it certainly isn’t the only course worth visiting. In March 2010, Justice sprang for the Glade Springs Resort — 39 miles west of The Greenbrier — so he could offer his guests additional outdoor activities such as rafting, skiing and ATV riding. And three more fine golf courses as well — two designed by Tom Clark (Stonehaven and Woodhaven) and the superb Cobb Course, which opened in 1973. The George Cobb design will host the West Virginia State Open this year and, as it has in recent years, Monday qualifying for The Greenbrier Classic.
A couple hours north up Highway 19 — and located inside the Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park named for Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson — is the AAA four-diamond Stonewall Resort, the site of what is surely one of Arnold Palmer’s best designs. Views of the Allegheny Mountains, a few fun holes near the lake early on and some very exciting holes on the higher ground on the back nine make Stonewall a tremendous round.
Another lovely Palmer course can be played at Oglebay Resort, just outside the town of Wheeling. The course opened in 2000 and complements the Robert Trent Jones Course that opened in 1969 on the 1,700-acre property that Cleveland industrialist Earl Oglebay, who built his summer retreat here, willed to the people of Deming. James Harrison’s Lakeview Course, completed in 1954 and part of the Lakeview Golf Resort & Spa outside Morgantown is another fine round worth playing. You’ve probably never planned a West Virginia golf trip. Sure, there are 49 other states out there to explore, but everyone should visit the “Northernmost Southern State” to see what Justice — and others — have served.