Australia might have been shut out in the last ten Presidents Cups, but the golf-wealthy island continent got a PGA Tour team win on Sunday, with countrymen Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith pairing up to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
In the fourth edition of the 83-year-old event since it made the switch to a team challenge, the duo used a flawless first 12 holes to force a playoff with the South African tandem of Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, which they then won on the first sudden death hole.
For both teams, which have combined for two majors and six major runner-ups (granted, Oosthuizen alone is four of those), the championship came down to two water-ball tee shots: the one the Aussies were able to rebound from, and the one the South Africans didn’t.
For both the 38-year-old Oosthuizen and the 36-year-old Schwartzel, their last PGA Tour win was the major they won: Oosthuizen obliterated the field at the 2010 Open Championship, while Schwartzel had arguably the best closing four holes ever when he won the 2011 Masters.
With those wins now more than a decade in the rear view mirror, they were hoping to see that drought finally evaporate when they held a one-stroke lead at 19-under going into the final round of the Zurich at famed TPC Louisiana. Leishman-Smith were one of the teams one back, with long-hitting American tandem of Cameron Champ and Tony Finau being the other.
On a Sunday of alternate shot golf (rounds 2 and 4 were alternate shot, while rounds 1 and 3 were “fourball”, basically best ball) Oosthuizen-Schwartzel asserted themselves further early with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3, but their round stagnated from there.
The team of 37-year-old Leishman and 27-year-old Smith birdied 2 and 7, and then tied the lead with an unlikely birdie on the par-3 9th, which is mostly credited to an immaculate tee shot by Leishman.
A bogey on 10 from the South Africans combined with a birdie on 11 by the Aussies put Leishman/Smith two ahead temporarily. However, that lead was short-lived as the Aussie tandem carded their first two bogeys on the day – the first on the par-4 13th and the second on the par-5 15th – while the South Africans birdied 15 to re-take the lead with three holes remaining.
That is when Smith, ranked 25th in the world, stepped up to the tee on the drive-able par-4 16th, and hit his shot into the water. The shot was more unlucky than it was bad, as an inopportune wind and a sort-of sideways bounce put the ball in the lake, but it was still unfortunate, particularly right after giving up the lead.
A weaker-minded team might have folded under the circumstances, but Leishman holed the birdie chip from the penalty spot to actually GAIN a stroke on the South Africans, who parred the hole. It was tied with two holes to go, and the next closest duo two back and in the clubhouse.
Both ended up with bogey 4s on the par-3 17th, and then both missed medium-length birdie putts on the par-5 18th. It was then onto the playoffs, which went back to the long 18th, and would switch between alternate shot and best ball if more additional holes were needed. In Sunday regulation, Leishman-Smith had shot a 2-under 70, while Oosthuizen-Schwartzel shot a 1-under 71.
Then came water-ball time for the South Africans. Oosthuizen, whose 0-2 PGA Tour playoff record comprised losses at the 2012 Masters and 2015 Open Championship, did not even take a practice swing before slicing his tee shot into the pond.
Worse still, which the Aussie water-ball on 16 at least crossed the water close to the green, Oosthuizen’s was from so far back that Schwartzel had to hit their third from the tee. The Aussies had a defensive par, while the South Africans carded a double-bogey 7, ending the tournament, in favor of Leishman-Smith.
It was the sixth career victory for Leishman, who had most recently taken the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open. It was the third PGA Tour victory for Smith, but the second in this event. He teamed up with Sweden’s Jonas Blixt to claim victory at the 2017 edition, the first year of the team format. That win required four playoff holes.
The next closest tandem to the two playoff teams was the American duo of Peter Uihlein and Richy Werenski, which finished two strokes back at 18-under. Three teams, with all six players U.S. natives, finished three back at 17-under.
Pos-Team-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Leishman / Smith -20 (-2)
2. Oosthuizen / Schwartzel -20 (-1)
3. Werenski / Uihlein -19 (-5)
4. Mitchell / Snedeker -18 (-3)
4. Horschel / Burns -18 (-3)
4. Bradley / Steele -18 (-2)
How Leishman & Smith Won The Zurich Classic
As would be expected, the fourball rounds (1 and 3) were considerably lower-scoring than the “foursome” (alternate shot) rounds. That was especially true with Leishman and Smith, who shot 9-under 63s on both Thursday and Saturday, more than offsetting an even-par 72 on Friday, where they were 3-over though 8 holes, but then birdied three straight to prevent the tournament from getting away.
Neither player really carried the other, as both were mostly excellent, although the two biggest highlights came from the World No. 37 Leishman, with his tee shot on a ninth-hole where nobody else got anywhere near the flag, and the chip-in after Smith untimely gaffe on 16.
It helped greatly that they did not bogey a single hole from their eighth in round 2 (the 17th hole in their case) until the 13th on Sunday. Despite the ten-year age difference, the camaraderie between Leishman and Smith was apparent during the entire tournament.
What It Means For Leishman and Smith
The two split the 500 FedExCup points, which jumped Smith to third in the current standings, and Leishman from 71st to 29th.
For Leishman, it was an encouraging first start since he contended two weeks ago at The Masters, finishing T5. The two combined are especially impressive given that he appeared to be in shambles in the part of the 2020 season that occurred after the three-month COVID layoff.
Showing a special kind of rust, had terrible results in all nine starts after the Tour restart. The lowest of his lows had to have been the BMW Championship, the second start of the FedExCup playoffs, where his record score of 30-OVER(!) was 69th in the 69-man field, and nine strokes behind the player who finished second-to-last.
With five top-20 results since last November, it has been a remarkable bounce-back.
For Smith, it was his sixth top-10 of the season. It was his third straight top 10, following a T10 at The Masters and a T9 at last week’s RBC Heritage. He has been extremely inconsistent round to round, but the results have been consistently fantastic.
Smith’s only finish out of the top 17 since February was at the WGC-Match Play, where he failed to advance to the round of 16 after finishing second in his four-man group to match-play great Ian Poulter. He was also T2 to Dustin Johnson at the November Masters Tournament.
Finishing third was a great result from Uihlein and Werenski, as they shot a co-field low 5-under 67 to move up 15 spots from 18th. It had to feel especially nice for the 31-year-old Uihlein, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champ and former European Tour Rookie of the Year, who had seen his professional career fizzle out after a promising start overseas.
Since February, the former world No. 1 amateur, has a win and a runner-up in Korn Ferry Tour events, and this finish at TPC Louisiana is the best result of his PGA Tour career. He ranked 517th in the world after a T39 at the Puerto Rico Open two months ago, and jumped up to 240th prior to this week.
Werenski was the winner of last August’s Barracuda Championship, but had missed his last three cuts after contending at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Tying Uihlein-Werenski for the Sunday low was a much more well-known pairing: the duo of world No. 5 Xander Schauffele and No. 10 Patrick Cantlay, two of the five top-10 players in the field in this week.
It was a much improved result after a 74 in the other alternate shot round on Friday. The 67 moved them a field-high 19 spots up the final leaderboard into a share of 11th.
It was Schauffele’s first action since he contended at The Masters, where he collapsed on the 16th hole to finish T3 to Hideki Matsuyama.
Cantlay had been in a surprising free-fall, missing the cut in his last three stroke-play events, including at last week’s RBC Heritage.
A 3-under 69 was good enough for the English tandem of world No. 8 Tyrrell Hatton and former Masters champ Danny Willett to snatch a top-10, up 11 spots on the final leaderboard. They had been bogey-free on the final day until 18, when Willett knocked his tee shot into the water, leading to a double-bogey 7.
Only being responsible for half of the shots of his final round was not enough to remedy the Sunday troubles of world No. 12 Tony Finau, who has more than 30 top-10s without a win since the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. And this finish did not even add to that as the 4-over 76 posted by he and Cameron Champ dropped them 15 spots into a share of 17th.
They were basically doomed after Finau’s tee shot on No. 9 landed in the water, which would engender a double-bogey five. They played the front nine in +4.
The American team (by the way, players were not required to partner with someone from the same country, but it happened in many cases) of young star Scottie Scheffler and two-time major winner Bubba Watson, were just two back going into the final round.
It would have been the first win of Scheffler’s career and the 13th for 42-year-old Watson. However, a 2-over front-nine kept them out of late contention, as a 1-over 73 dropped them from T4 to T8.
The worst final-day, by far, came from the only other two Australian players to make the cut, Greg Chalmers and Cameron Percy.
Despite four birdies, they shot an abysmal 10-over 82 to drop from T28 to solo 33rd, finishing at 1-under, the lowest total of those who made the weekend. Their lowlight was the par-3 9th, where Percy hit his tee shot into the water, and then Chalmers hit into the water from where they dropped. They carded a quintuple-bogey 8.
“Cam actually hit a really good tee shot there and just the wind got it a bit more than we thought. It was probably three yards from being there for one on the green, but we had that positive mindset,” said Marc Leishman, on the tee shot of partner Cameron Smith on 16, which landed in the water.
“It’s different when you’re playing with a partner; not that you’re not trying, but if you can do something like that and have someone to celebrate with… I forgot to get the ball out of the hole, actually. Louis had to throw it to me.
“It was nice to make that; it settled us down a little bit and we were able to finish it off in the playoff.”