WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – The two sand-colored Humvees at the center of the circle stand in stark contrast to the well-manicured lawn and red, white and blue flowers that frame the grand entrance to the iconic Greenbrier Resort.
The Black Hawk helicopter that touched down on the 18th green Tuesday afternoon was an anomaly, as well. Ditto for the four paratroopers who cascaded out of the skies with an giant American flag on Wednesday.
Members of the military, any of whom get into the tournament for free this week, served as caddies during the pro-am. And a C-130 plane brought play to a brief standstill Wednesday as it flew over the mountains and buzzed the 18th green.
While things may seem a little different here at a resort better known for its golf, horseback riding, falconry and even glass blowing, though, it’s with good reason. This is the week of A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
The eighth renewal of the PGA TOUR event has a new name and a new focus that reflects the history of the resort that has hosted 27 U.S. Presidents, including the incumbent, Donald Trump, on Tuesday night. With the tournament being played during the week of July 4th, the decision to honor the military was a no-brainer.
“We’ve always tried to find some way to have that military tie-in and we just decided it was time to take it a step further and really show that commitment,” says Cam Huffman, director of public relations and content for The Greenbrier.
The family-friendly resort is always a popular stop for TOUR pros. But the week-long military presence has added another dimension for Bubba Watson and his brood, particularly his 6-year-old son Caleb who is one of many who have gotten up-close-and-personal with the Humvees this week.
“My son says he’s going to be an Army man,” reports Watson, who has a summer home at The Greenbrier. “He has been sitting on those every day. They haven’t changed but he wants to see them every day.”
Watson’s late father Gerry was a Green Beret who served during the Vietnam War and he’s always a staunch supporter of the military. So Watson, who has already won three times this season, would like nothing better than to add his fourth here this week.
“It’s just one of those things that would mean a lot to my family, just to honor my late dad,” Watson said. “It would be a cool thing. There are so many story lines and that would be cool for me to (win) it.”A skydiver coasts down to The Greenbrier with an American flag. (Mike Wyatt/Greenbrier Photography)
The military connection at The Greenbrier dates back to the Civil War. The Old White Hotel, which stood on the property before The Greenbrier was built, was actually used as a hospital for both Confederate and Union soldiers at one point or other during the Civil War.
The Army even bought the hotel during World War II and used it as a hospital for the wounded. Known as the Ashford General Hospital from 1942-‘46, it was dubbed “The Shangri-La for Wounded Soldiers and Airmen” as service members were able to use all the facilities while they recovered. German POWs tended to the grounds and worked in the mess hall, among other duties.
“The spa was still open. The golf was still open. It was more of a rehab thing for soldiers to participate in some of those activities while getting back to normal,” Huffman says.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was among the more than 24,000 military members treated at Ashford Hospital. He fell in love with the facility, and he and his wife, Mamie, even celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary at the Top Notch Cottage, which was built prior to the Civil War. General John W. Pershing completed his memoirs while staying in the same place.
Eisenhower later decided that The Greenbrier would be the perfect place to build a secret facility to house Congress in case of a nuclear attack. So construction on what was called “Project Greek Island” began in 1958.
Workers were told it would be a conference facility, and in fact, some of it was used for that purpose. Beyond those concrete walls that were 3 feet thick, though, was a facility that could house more than 1,000 government officials – complete with metal bunk beds and its own communications system.
For 30 years, until it was “outed” in the Washington Post in 1992, The Bunker stood ready to serve. It was even stocked with enough food to last six months – just in case the worst happened.
As something of an adjunct to The Bunker, the landing strip at nearby Lewisburg Airport had to be expanded so that it could accommodate the likes of Air Force One, as was the case on Tuesday night when President Trump arrived. Roads in and out of the town of 4,000 were shut down as the motorcade made the 20-minute trek to the resort and back again.
“Actually, even when the President is not coming in, Air Force One does a lot of touch down practices at that airport, training exercises and stuff,” Huffman says.
Trump spoke for roughly 30 minutes at a “Salute to Service” dinner for about 100 members of the military and pro-am participants. It was his fifth visit to West Virginia, whose governor, Jim Justice, is a close political ally and owns The Greenbrier.
“We’ve had meetings for weeks to make sure everything is set and perfect,” Huffman says. “It’s kind of eye-opening to see everything that goes into it. They know every step he’s going to make when he’s here, exactly when and where he’s going to be, who’s going to be in his eyesight while he’s here.
“So there’s a lot of planning that goes into it. But I think no matter what your political beliefs are, it’s all worth it to know that you have the President of the United States at your event.”Honoring the military is a major part of the event at The Greenbrier. (Mike Wyatt/Greenbrier Photography)