“I thought it was Emerald City,” Justice said a few days before the start of the PGA Tour’s inaugural Greenbrier Classic last week. “It was a magical place.”
Now more than 40 years later, Justice has become the proud new magician of the Greenbrier, a man in perpetual motion who performs feats very much in front of the curtain these days after purchasing the property for $20 million in May 2009. He’s pumped many millions more into an American institution that had fallen on hard times in recent years, adding a sparkly new gambling casino, adding and also saving hundreds of jobs and rescuing one of the state’s greatest assets.
Justice was named CEO of his family’s vast agriculture and coal mining holdings in 1993 and has become one of the most powerful – and admired – businessmen in the state, with a fortune estimated at well over $800 million. All the while he also has continued to serve as president of Little League baseball in his hometown and still coaches the girls’ basketball team at Greenbrier East High School in nearby Lewisburg. He considers himself a normal, no-nonsense 59-year-old guy with a common touch, despite his rather uncommon resources.
Not long after he completed the deal to purchase the Greenbrier, Justice fielded a call from one of his boyhood friends and frequent dawn to dusk golfing companions at a nine-hole course in Beckley where they both learned to play the game. Slugger White, a longtime PGA Tour rules official and tournament director, had once played on the same high school golf team with Justice, but in recent years hadn’t had much contact with his old pal. After reading about his purchase of the Greenbrier, White decided to call and congratulate Justice, the first time they’d spoken in more than a decade.
“We giggled a lot on the phone,” Justice recalled, “and then I said to him ‘I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy. I need a golf tournament here.’”
White suggested talking to the tour about possibly landing a Champions Tour event to start with, but Justice wasn’t interested.
“I want the real deal,” he said he told White. “Slugger said that kind of thing can take 20 years, but he said he would try to help me out. He put me in touch with all the right people, and in a matter of weeks after our conversation, the Tour was here looking at our courses, and off we went.”
In a separate interview, White picked up the narrative.
“When Jim said he was interested in getting a tour event, I told him I’d run it up the flagpole,” he said. “I called Rick George (the tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations) and the timing couldn’t have been better. The Buick Open was going the other way, unfortunately, and there was going to be an opening in the schedule. Rick wanted to know how soon could we talk to (Justice)?”
That conversation followed shortly thereafter, and within weeks, George, Slugger White and another tour rules official, Tyler Dennis, were on the grounds, looking at the venerable Greenbrier Course as a possible site. Built in 1924 and renovated by Jack Nicklaus in 1977, that venue had hosted the 1979 Ryder Cup and ‘94 Solheim Cup as well as a Champions Tour event from 1985-87. But Slugger White had another idea. He also wanted to inspect another course on the property, the Old White designed by the great Charles Blair MacDonald and opened for play in 1914.
“We were going down the fourth fairway at Old White and we all kind of looked at each other,” White said. “Rick said, ‘This is where we need to be,’ which is exactly what I had been thinking, too. I guess you could say the rest is history.”
Instead of an agonizingly prolonged process to secure a PGA Tour event, Jim Justice and his childhood friend had done the deed in less than four months. On Aug. 5, 2009, it was announced that Old White would host the inaugural 2010 Greenbrier Classic, and that the tour and Justice had signed a six-year agreement to keep the event at the resort at least through 2015.
“In a marketplace when the Buick Open was wavering, this was an opportunity for everyone,” Justice said. “They seized the opportunity, and I seized the opportunity. I’ve done a lot of deals in my life, and I like to get things done. My definition of a committee is a bunch of individuals who individually can’t do anything. We didn’t need a committee. We just got it done.”
Justice also has even grander plans. He’d first like to see a Presidents Cup or a Ryder Cup contested on Old White, and then perhaps a major championship.
“Why not?” Justice said. “This is just the beginning, and we’re making a big splash. Between our sponsorships and hospitality, we’re going to exceed $3 million in what we’re going to give to charity, and that’s double the record amount for any first year event on the tour’s schedule. We feel like the sky is the limit here, and I think anything is possible.”
This is one West Virginia boss who clearly means business.