The Zurich Classic has been around since 1938, annually meeting in the New Orleans area, and boasting big name past champions like Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, Gary Player, Tom Watson, and Seve Ballesteros.
However, the tournament had become stale in more recent years, so the event made a huge change last year: they turned it into a team event, something that had not been seen on Tour since the early 80s.
With teams of two playing two rounds of alternate shot and two rounds of best ball, the Zurich brought some excitement, but with the risk of being seen as a novelty.
One year in, the change was a big hit, and the event now provides an intriguing reprieve to a slow part of the PGA schedule. In this year’s edition, players are even getting walk-in music as they approach the first tee. It is golf at some of its most interesting.
Here is what to watch closely this week:
1. CAM SMITH – JONAS BLIXT DEFEND
The first Zurich Classic under the team format had a surprise winner: the international duo of Cameron Smith (Australia) and Jonas Blixt (Sweden).
Amazingly, the pair did not record a single bogey the entire tournament, and perhaps even more amazingly, they still needed extra holes. An 8-under 64 in the final round kept them out front, but an unreal 12-under 60 from the team of Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown had both pairings at 27-under for the tournament.
The playoff had to take place on Monday, since Sunday storms had already delayed play considerably, and that playoff was a circus of missed putts until a deadly wedge shot from Smith on extra hole No. 4 led to a three-foot birdie putt, and a victory.
Both Smith and Blixt needed the win badly. The 24-year-old Smith had flashed high-end talent before, most notably when he finished 4th at the 2015 U.S. Open at just 21 years old, but was coming off a dreadful 2016 season, with no top-10s and just three top 25s in 24 events.
Blixt had two wins early in his career, but his game was in a nosedive since his victory at the 2013 Greenbrier Classic. Despite recent struggles, the two formed a formidable, cohesive team.
Strangely, both were awful for the next few months after their Zurich triumph. Smith’s next nine events comprised a T7, a T65, and seven missed cuts. Blixt had a T18, a T31, a T62, and six missed cuts over his next nine. They received a two-year Tour exemption for their victory at TPC Louisiana, but both would have liked to have finished 2017 better.
However, 2018 has been a different story, at least for Cam Smith. Smith has five top-10 finishes in 12 events this season, with the most recent being a T5 at The Masters. He has missed just one cut on the season and ranks 20th on Tour in scoring average.
As for Blixt, he has made his presence known very little this season. In 12 events, the 33-year-old Blixt has just one finish inside the top 30, although that was a T14 in his most recent outing (RBC Heritage), so maybe he is turning things back around.
At the very least, as the defending champions, they will not be surprising anyone this year.
2. REED’S FIRST TEE UP AS A MAJOR CHAMP
What a difference a year makes for Patrick Reed! Coming into last year’s Zurich Classic, Reed’s game was in shambles. He had missed his previous three cuts, and a disappointing T38 at the Valspar Championship was his only finish inside the top 50 in his previous seven events. It was a shocking slump for a man who had been consistently good over his last three years, three seasons that all ended in top 10 FedExCup finishes.
Flash-forward 12 months, and it is a completely different story for the controversial 27-year-old. Reed is coming into this year’s Zurich off four consecutive top 10 finishes, with the most recent of those being a breakthrough major triumph at The Masters.
This week will mark Reed’s first start since Sergio Garcia placed the much-coveted green jacket on his shoulders at the end of four unforgettable days at Augusta.
Now, everywhere Reed goes, he is no longer just a great professional golfer who has a penchant for U.S. team events: he is a major champion. That brings enormous cache to his profile and a whole new different level of attention.
There will no doubt be distractions for Reed, but his wise choice of a Zurich playing partner, Patrick Cantlay is a phenomenal player in his own right, and should provide a calming presence.
Reed and Cantlay were partners in last year’s Zurich as well, and despite the abysmal state of Reed’s game coming into the week, the two meshed well, getting off to a blazing 68-62 start that had the duo in second place going into the weekend.
They fell off the pace on Saturday with a disappointing 3-over 75, but they rebounded with a 66 on Sunday, and finished in a tie for 14th, Reed’s best result since mid-January.
Cantlay also made some news at The Masters, missing his first cut since 2014. He bounced back nicely the following week, however, with a T7 at the RBC Heritage.
With Cantlay’s prowess off the tees and Reed’s recently spectacular short game, these two should be among the most feared teams at TPC Louisiana.
3. OLYMPIC MEDAL DUO LOOKING TO REBOUND
When teams were announced for last year’s team format debut at the Zurich Classic, there was one pairing that stood out above all others: the daunting duo of Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson.
Both ranked inside the world’s top 8 at the time, Rose and Stenson made waves at the 2016 Olympic Games, with Rose taking the gold medal and Stenson the silver. They had also been playing partners at the last two Ryder Cups, going 3-0-0 in 2014, and while their 1-2-0 record at the 2016 edition was not as impressive on paper, they had to play all three of those matches against the unstoppable American pairing of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.
However, Rose and Stenson were a shocking dud in New Orleans last year, as a 72-66 start left them one stroke short of the 36-hole cut. The pairing most predicted to contend did not even make it to the weekend.
Now, the European duo is looking for revenge. Fortunately for them, both players are coming into the Zurich playing well.
Rose, now ranked No. 5 in the world, has been especially impressive with three victories and 13 top-10 finishes in his last 17 events worldwide.
Stenson, ranked 15th in the world has also been sharp as of late, with top six finishes in his last three PGA Tour events, with the most recent being an impressive T5 at The Masters. Another missed cut for these two feels like a whole different kind of unlikely.
4. U.S. OPEN CHAMP KOEPKA RETURNS FROM INJURY
Reigning U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka had a curious start at the Hero World Challenge, an unofficial 18-man event held in The Bahamas by Tiger Woods in early December, finishing his four rounds at 3-over par, the worst result in the talented field.
Coming off a tremendous 2017 season, and having placed T2 in his previous event, the WGC-HSBC Champions, finishing dead last at the Hero was surprising, but it was forgivable given the low stakes. The consensus was that maybe he just did not take the event as seriously as his competitors.
Then, in his next start, the Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January, Koepka fizzled again, shooting 13-over par over the four days for a finish of, again, dead last. Not only was he last, he was last by six strokes. Tournament champion Dustin Johnson finishing 37(!) strokes ahead of Koepka. Something was clearly wrong with his game.
The disastrous two-start stretch finally made sense when it was later revealed that the 27-year-old Koepka was battling a difficult wrist injury, and would need a lengthy lay-off to heal.
Now, more than three months after he was forced to shut his game down, Koepka is finally back in action, as he is slated to start this week’s Zurich Classic.
For the second consecutive year, Koepka is teaming up with a player much-less regarded than he is at TPC Louisiana. In last year’s edition, his playing partner was his brother, Chase, who mostly plays on the European Challenge Tour, and was making his PGA Tour debut.
Despite the obvious disparity in accomplishments, the Koepka Brothers held their own, finishing an impressive T5. Chase played just one more PGA event on the season afterwards, missing the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship, and in 2018, he is off to a miserable start in Europe, with a T53, a T58, and four missed cuts over his last six events.
Regardless, the younger Koepka will not be at the Zurich this year, and Brooks is instead teaming up with Tour vet Marc Turnesa, who has not finished in the top 20 of a Tour event since February of 2012.
In 120 career PGA Tour events, Turnesa has just three top 10s, with two of those coming in his 2008 rookie season.
The 40-year-old has entered just one event this season, missing the cut at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. He played 2017 primarily on the Web.com Tour, making just five cuts in 18 starts with a T31 in January his only finish inside the top 50. He also played four PGA Tour events in 2017, missing the cut in each one.
Between Koepka’s rust and Turnesa’s everything else, this duo will have their work cut out for them at the Zurich.
5. NATIONAL PRIDE
The teams for the second Zurich classic under the new format were not randomly chosen, so it is unsurprising that a lot of the international players decided to team up with one of their fellow countrymen.
The all-country team with the most star power has to be the Spain team of Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera-Bello. World No. 10 Sergio suddenly finds himself with something to prove, having played spectacularly for months, but has been shockingly terrible in his last two outings: an unspeakable poor championship defense at The Masters, and a missed cut at last week’s Valero Texas Open, which was played at a course he helped design.
Likewise, World No. 25 Cabrera-Bello is coming off four consecutive poor starts after several months of solid play. In his most recent outing, he missed the cut two weeks ago at his home country event, the Open de Espana, which was won by another Spaniard, Jon Rahm.
Even with recent form lacking, the Sergio-Rafa duo stands out as one of the most talented teams in the field.
Other all-country duos include the South African pairing of Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, the South Korean pairing of K.J. Choi and Charlie Wi, who was surprisingly good in this event last year, the Mexican pairing of Abraham Ancer and Roberto Diaz, the Irish team of Shane Lowry and three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, the struggling Chinese duo of Xinjun Zhang and Zecheng Dou, the Canadian duo of MacKenzie Hughes and Corey Conners, the Argentinian team of Fabian Gomez and Andres Romero, the Aussie squad of Cameron Percy and Greg Chalmers, and two Team Englands, with the recently-hot Ian Poulter paired with Graeme McDowell, and reigning Race to Dubai Champion Tommy Fleetwood playing with lesser-known Chris Paisley.
The Zurich Classic might not be match play, but there is still some national pride at stake.
6. SPIETH AND THOMAS RETURN TO NEW ORLEANS
The two biggest names in the Zurich Classic field are the two highest ranked players: World No. 2 Justin Thomas and World No. 3 Jordan Spieth, who are returning for a second try at the team format. To the dismay of golf fans, the two close friends/rivals are not teaming up, but still remain among the most likely to contend.
Both Spieth and Thomas will be paired with the same partner they had last year, with Spieth forming an all-Texan team with Ryan Palmer, and Thomas teaming with another close friend, Bud Cauley.
Spieth and Palmer finished solo-fourth last year, aided by three rounds of 66 or better. Spieth’s season had been mildly disappointing, largely due to uncharacteristic putting woes, but he has come around in a big way in his last two outings, with a T3 at the Houston Open followed by a near comeback of the ages at The Masters, where a sizzling final round 64 got him in the mix late, also finishing in third place.
The 41-year-old Palmer in the midst of a relatively poor season, and in his most recent start, he missed the cut at last week’s Valero Texas Open, despite having finished in the top six of the previous three editions.
Thomas and Cauley were also in sync at last year’s Zurich Classic. They did not play especially well on the alternate shots day, but were deadly in best ball with a 64 on Friday and a 61 in Sunday, leading to a T5 finish.
Thomas is the current leader in the FedExCup standings, with two wins and a runner-up on the season. He was mildly disappointing in his last start, The Masters, where an opening-round 74 proved to be too big a hole to dig out of, as he finished T17.
Cauley is not having the kind of season Thomas is, but he is bringing in some momentum with three consecutive finishes inside the top 23. Cauley has shined on the greens this season, which should make him valuable in this format.
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