WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Greg Norman, chief executive of the LIV Golf International series, was on the grounds of The Greenbrier resort Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, eying the property for a potential event in 2023.
The Gazette-Mail first reported Norman’s presence early Wednesday. Shortly thereafter, The Greenbrier released an official statement confirming that Norman was on the grounds and that the Old White course is in consideration for a LIV event.
“We are pleased to have one of golf’s greats, Greg Norman, visiting The Greenbrier this week,” the statement read. “LIV Golf is scouting venues and golf courses around the world for consideration for future tournament venues and The Greenbrier, the Old White, the resort’s iconic history with the game and the wonderful state of West Virginia are of great interest to the organization. The Greenbrier is proud to once again be considered for one of golf’s biggest events.”
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, took little time to express his concern about Norman’s presence at The Greenbrier both from the perspective of West Virginia’s potential association with LIV and the ethical question of Gov. Jim Justice’s use of his office to enrich The Greenbrier, which is operated under the Justice-family’s Greenbrier Hotel Corp.
“There are plenty of things that will put you on the world’s stage, but not for the right reasons,” Baldwin said. “I’m upset about the possibility of this happening as a resident of Greenbrier County, as a senator from this area, as an avid golfer, and as an American. I think that this is just wrong.”
On July 27, it was announced that the Saudi-backed tour would expand from eight events to 14 in 2023. The same day, reports connecting former Greenbrier property owner and spokesman Bubba Watson to LIV surfaced. A couple of days later, Watson’s move to LIV was confirmed.
In June, the Wheeling Intelligencer quoted Justice as being open to potentially bringing a LIV event to the resort.
“I would probably weigh in with an opinion,” Justice said. “So, with all that being said I think it would bring more notoriety to West Virginia and I surely would be open to at least hearing the possibilities if it came our way.”
Norman was approached as he was touring the course Wednesday morning, but declined to elaborate on LIV possibly coming to the resort, saying only, “I have to go meet with the governor.”
On Wednesday, Justice said he would be “extremely supportive” of anything that could benefit the Mountain State.
“I believe a LIV Golf event would do just that,” Justice said in a statement. “LIV Golf is riding a huge wave of momentum right now and has brought many of the world’s best golfers on board. Seeing them play in West Virginia would be really special.
“As a lifelong golfer myself, I also know that having an event of this caliber in West Virginia might inspire some of our youth to take up the game of golf, which has brought so much enjoyment to my life. If we can inspire our kids, show West Virginia off to the world, and give our economy a boost, I’m totally supportive.”
Baldwin wouldn’t speculate as to whether Gov. Justice violated the state’s Ethics Act in potentially meeting with Norman at The Greenbrier, but said it’s incumbent upon elected officials to engage in ethical behavior.
“If I run up against a gray area in terms of my public service, I’ll write the Ethics Commission for an opinion,” Baldwin said. “I don’t know about the practice in this instance, but it would make sense to me that this ought to be looked at.”
Justice did his best to assure West Virginians that there would be no conflict of interest between his family-owned businesses and state government after voters elected him to his first term in 2016.
Justice declined to put his family-owned businesses into a blind trust, instead handing over titles to his children James “Jay” Justice III, who operates the family’s coal, farming, and land operations, and Dr. Jillean Justice Long, who operates The Greenbrier.
The 2017 letter remains posted on the governor’s website. In it, Justice said he expected all laws, regulations and policies to be strictly adhered to and enforced with respect to any business associated with his family.
“I have always taught my children that we will never show nor accept favoritism, but rather achieve our goals through hard work and dedication,” Justice wrote in the letter titled “A letter to state employees from Governor Justice.”
“I assure you there is absolutely no expectation on behalf of the members of my family of receiving any special treatment.”
Before being elected governor, Justice helped bring professional golf to The Greenbrier in 2010. The Greenbrier Classic, a PGA Tour event, was held nine times in 10 years on the resort’s Old White course. Originally scheduled on the week of July 4, the event was renamed A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier in 2018 and was moved to the fall in 2019. The 2016 event was canceled due to massive flooding in the area.
A contract between The Greenbrier and the PGA Tour, one that had been signed through 2026, was canceled via “mutual agreement” in April 2020. The move to the fall and subsequent dwindling attendance were cited as reasons for the contract’s termination in a statement from The Greenbrier to the media in June of that year.
“The tournament moving to the fall has not served the Greenbrier as well as the event did in prior years when it was hosted over the July 4 week,” the statement said. “With kids being back in school, the attractiveness for sponsors and the attendance for the fans dropped significantly.”
LIV Golf emerged as a competitor to the PGA Tour this year. It held its first event on June 9 at the Centurion Club in London, England. Backed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, LIV Golf has lured numerous former PGA Tour stars including Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Watson and others.
Norman, nicknamed “the Shark,” is a two-time Open Championship winner (1986, 1993) with 88 career professional victories. He was announced as the CEO of LIV Golf Investments in October 2021.
The organization has drawn criticism over its ties to the Saudi Arabian government. Much of the criticism surrounds Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was determined to have ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The family has also been accused of being connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Last month, a group representing family members of those injured or killed in the attacks wrote an open letter to PGA Tour members thanking them for not joining LIV Golf.
Baldwin likewise noted the PGA Tour is a non-profit organization, and its presence in any community often is a huge boost for the area — particularly for local non-profits and community organizations. He said LIV Golf is a corporation that doesn’t have a similar reach. The New York Times reported last month that some professional golfers see LIV Golf as “a money grab.”
“Even the golf world has been largely in opposition to this,” Baldwin said. “They have turned the money down and do not want to be associated with [LIV Golf]. It’s another good example that money isn’t everything.”
Former President Donald Trump, a friend of Justice’s, has voiced his support of LIV Golf in recent weeks. A LIV event held at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster last week was won by Stenson.
Massive purses have highlighted LIV events thus far, with lucrative contracts swaying some of golf’s biggest names. Mickelson, also a former Greenbrier property owner and spokesman, reportedly signed a contract worth in upward of $200 million. Johnson’s contract has been reported to be around $150 million, with DeChambeau making around $100 million.
Tiger Woods reportedly declined $700-$800 million, a number that was confirmed by Norman in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Sunday. Norman also addressed the controversy surrounding the tour, and indicated its acquisition of star golfers has just begun.
“They’re not going to shut us down because the product is speaking for itself,” Norman said. “We have almost on a daily basis, we get calls every day from players [saying] ‘I want in.’ … The list gets longer and longer for the players who want to come in. Which again, is a testament to the right white noise.”
Currently, LIV Golf events stray from traditional PGA Tour formats with tournaments lasting three rounds totaling 54 holes as opposed to four rounds and 72 holes. The events begin with a shotgun start. The tour’s next event is scheduled for The Oaks golf course in Boston Sept. 2-4.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Gov. Jim Justice is not listed as “Operations Advisor” of Greenbrier Hotel Corporation on his filing with the state Ethics Commission.
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