After a successful debut in 2017, the Zurich Classic returns this week with the only two-man team format on the PGA Tour. Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith were the inaugural winners of the pairs format, outlasting Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown a year ago.
Judged by the strength of the field, the two-man format is appealing to the game’s top players. Six of the current world’s top 10 players are in the field, along with No. 11 Patrick Reed making his first appearance since becoming The Masters champion early this month. He’s teamed with world No. 34 Patrick Cantlay.
Three teams in the field will include pairings of players in the world’s current top 25 — No. 5 Justin Rose and No. 15 Henrik Stenson, No. 10 Sergio Garcia and No. 25 Rafael Cabreba Bello, and No. 18 Bubba Watson and No. 21 Matt Kuchar.
Another significant storyline is the return of reigning U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who has been out with a wrist injury since early January. Koepka, still at No. 9 in the world rankings, will team up with Marc Turnesa.
Two of the most popular young players in the game are also in the Zurich field, with world No. 2 Justin Thomas teaming with Bud Cauley and world No. 3 Jordan Spieth pairing with Ryan Palmer.
Here are additional details about what to look for this week in New Orleans.
Tournament: Zurich Classic
Dates: April 26-29, 2018
Where: New Orleans, La.
Course: TPC Louisiana
Distance: Par 72, 7,425 yards
Architect: Pete Dye
Format: 72-holes, best-ball format Thursday and Saturday, alternate-shot format Friday and Sunday, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,036,800 each player
Defending Champions: Jonas Blixt/Cameron Smith
Marquee Players: Blixt/Smith, Justin Rose/Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia/Rafael Cabrera Bello, Bubba Watson/Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed/Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas/Bud Cauley, Jordan Spieth/Ryan Palmer, Jon Rahm/Wesley Bryan, Tommy Fleetwood/Chris Paisley, Brooks Koepka/Marc Turnesa, Jason Day/Ryan Ruffels, Steve Stricker/Jerry Kelly
TV AND ONLINE
Round 1: Thu 2:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Round 2: Fri 2:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Round 3: Sat 1-2:45 pm (GOLF), 3-6:00 pm (CBS)
Round 4: Sun 1-2:45 pm (GOLF), 3-6:00 pm (CBS)
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While last year’s drastic format change made the Zurich Classic feel like a new event, it has actually been around for a long time, with roots all the way back in 1938. That first tournament was called the “Crescent City Open” and was won by future PGA Hall of Famer Harry Cooper, the 30th victory of his 31-win career.
Other notable Zurich champions include Jimmy Demaret, Byron Nelson, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw and Vijay Singh.
Despite nearly 70 editions of the tournament (there was no tournament from 1949-1957), nobody has been able to win more than twice with nine players currently at two victories. Carlos Franco, in 2000, was the last golfer to snag the title for the second time.
The event has always been held in the New Orleans area, with TPC Louisiana, a design of the legendary Pete Dye, first hosting in 2005. It has been the host course since 2007, and has been prone to surrendering some very low scores.
The last five 72-hole Zurich champions (weather shortened it to 54 holes in 2016) have finished -19 or better, including 27-under for last year’s first-time team event.
2005-18: Zurich Classic of New Orleans
2003-04: HP Classic of New Orleans
1999-02: Compaq Classic of New Orleans
1996-98: Freeport-McDermott Classic
1994-95: Freeport-McMoran Classic
1992-93: Freeport-McMoran Golf Classic
1982-91: USF&G Classic
1981: USF&G New Orleans Open
1980: Greater New Orleans Open
1975-79: First NBC New Orleans Open
1972-74: Greater New Orleans Invitational
1958-71: Greater New Orleans Open Invitational
1939-48: New Orleans Open
1938: Crescent City Open
2017: Jonas Blixt/Cameron Smith (-27)
2016: Brian Stuard (-15)
2015: Justin Rose (-22)
2014: Seung-Yul Noh (-19)
2013: Billy Horschel (-20)
2012: Jason Dufner (-19)
2011: Bubba Watson (-18)
262 (-26) Chip Beck (1988)
261 (-27) Jonas Blixt/Cameron Scott (2017), Kevin Kisner/Scott Brown (2017)
2 – Henry Picard (1939, 1941), Byron Nelson (1945-46), Bo Wininger (1962-63), Frank Beard (1966, 1971), Billy Casper (1958, 1975), Tom Watson (1980-81), Chip Beck (1988, 1992), Ben Crenshaw (1987, 1994), Carlos Franco (1999-00)
You would think that going bogey-free over an entire four-day 72-hole PGA tournament would guarantee a victory. It seems impossible that it wouldn’t, but that nearly did happen, thanks to the one-man wrecking crew of Kevin Kisner.
Despite Kisner’s heroics, which included six consecutive front-nine birdies and a chip-in eagle on 18 (which put the exclamation point on a round of 12-under 60), the four-day bogey-free team of Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith won on the fourth hole of a Monday playoff, to take the PGA Tour’s first team tournament since 1981, the Zurich Classic.
The Blixt-Smith team was formidable, but was nearly caught on Sunday as Kisner caught fire playing with teammate Scott Brown. The playoff participants were 27-under for the Zurich team-play experiment, which, by all indications, was a rousing success.
1 Jonas Blixt/Cameron Smith -27
2 Kevin Kisner/Scott Brown -27
3 Kelly Kraft/Kevin Tway -23
4 Jordan Spieth/Ryan Palmer -22
5 Jason Dufner/Patton Kizzire -19
5 Brooks Koepka/Chase Koepka -19
5 Bubba Watson/J.B. Holmes -19
5 Angel Cabrera/Julian Etulain -19
5 Justin Thomas/Bud Cauley -19
5 Charley Hoffman/Nick Watney -19
Team play is notoriously hard to predict, as evidenced by last year’s playoff between two teams few would have expected to be there at the end — winners Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith and runners-up Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown. With an even deeper field this year, it makes the 2018 Zurich Classic feel even more wide open.
The highest-credentialed team in the field is world No. 5 Justin Rose and world No. 15 Henrik Stenson. Given that Rose himself was the 2015 Zurich champ in the pre-team era, and that Rose was gold medalist and Stenson winner of the silver when golf returned to the 2016 Olympics, they seem as likely as any team to be in the mix.
Three groups that certainly have potential also figure to be among the biggest draws for the gallery. World No. 2 and current FedEx Cup leader Justin Thomas, along with his partner Bud Cauley, already have good vibes, having posted a tie for fifth in last year’s Zurich event.
World No. 3 Jordan Spieth draws the fans no matter where he plays, and has a veteran partner in Ryan Palmer. Many fans will also be curious to catch a glimpse of Masters champion Patrick Reed, who is partnering with Patrick Cantlay. That pairing managed a tie for 14th in this event last year.
One other group to keep an eye on, if you subscribe to the theory of riding the hottest horses, would be the team of Sean O’Hair and Jimmy Walker. At last week’s Valero Texas Open, their combined final round totals on Sunday were 11-under, with O’Hair placing in a tie for second overall, and Walker a stroke behind in solo fourth.
Credits: PGA Tour Media, Getty Images