One of the oldest events on Tour, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans dates back to 1938, where 30-time PGA Tour winner Harry Cooper defeated Nickname Hall of Fame member Jug McSpaden by four strokes.
However, that version of the Zurich looked much different than the current product, which in 2017, was shifted to the Tour’s only official team-play event. Held at TPC Louisiana, the event features pairing that play fourball in rounds 1 and 3, and an alternate shot format in rounds 2 and 4. While a much different feel than any event on Tour, it does provide a nice respite from stroke play, with many still in hangover mode from The Masters two week ago.
The tournament features five of the top 10 in the world rankings, and while the team aspect makes it more difficult to predict, here is our best shot at distinguishing the best power pairings:
10. Byeong Hun An & Sungae Im
While they did not play together, the short last-name pairing of An and Im combined for a 3-2-1 record in team play at the 2019 Presidents Cup, impressive given how overmatched the International Team was.
Im is 19th in the world rankings at just 21 years of age, while An finished T2 here in 2016, the last year before it became a team event.
It will be interesting to watch these two around the hole: An ranks third on Tour in strokes gained: around-the-green, but 213th in strokes gained: putting, while Im is 24th in strokes gained: putting, but 176th in strokes gained: around-the-green.
9. Scott Brown & Kevin Kisner
A pair of 37-year-olds, Brown and Kisner have become an institution at TPC Louisiana, finishing in the top 15 in all three of the team editions, including a runner-up in 2017, holding the 54-hole lead in 2018, and then finishing T5 in 2019.
Neither arrive at this year’s Zurich in their best condition, with Kisner missing the cut in three of his last four, while Brown has just a single top 25 in 17 starts this season.
Brown is even in the negative in all six strokes gained categories. Regardless, it feels like the stats can be thrown out when these two get together.
8. Tyrrell Hatton & Danny Willett
The only pairing this week that could become a legitimate Ryder Cup pairing this year is this team of two friendly Englishmen.
We were surprised as you are to learn that the 33-year-old, who has been all kinds of up and down in his career, currently ranks 10th in the European Ryder Cup Standings.
He did play the Ryder Cup once, in 2016, but was absolutely horrific, compiling a 0-3-0 record and getting obliterated 5&4 twice by Brooks Koepka, although his brother’s pre-event commentary didn’t exactly help.
Willett missed the cut at The Masters, the major he won in 2016, but rebounded nicely at last week’s RBC Heritage, notching a T18.
Hatton, in that same event last weekend, had two 73s and two 66s to finish T39, a microcosm of the up-and-down nature of his recent form. He does rank 8th in the OWGR though, so his best is pretty darn good.
7. Sam Burns & Billy Horschel
If this were a WGC event, we would have this pairing ranked even higher, as Horschel has gone T2-win in his last two, taking the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in a tremendous final over local Scottie Scheffler.
Still, Horschel ranks 18th in the OWGR and is playing some of the best golf of his career this season, and he won this event in 2013, before it was team play, and then added a team play title when paired with Scott Piercy in 2018.
This year, the University of Florida product makes an SEC pairing with 24-year-old LSU grad Sam Burns, who has struggled in his last four starts, but prior to that, he finished a solo-third at the Genesis Invitational, and has been in contention several times, while looking for his first career victory.
6. Cameron Champ & Tony Finau
If the team play format gave priority to distance, this pairing would win going away. Champ is currently third on Tour in driving distance, and Finau has consistently ranked very highly in that statistic as well, ranking in the top 10 in five of his seven full-time seasons.
Finau, the world No. 12, has not quite been stellar as he was in January, when he posted runner-up in three consecutive events worldwide, but he has top 10s in six of 14 starts this season and is fresh off a T10 at The Masters, where he got onto the periphery of contention several times.
Champ has mostly found Tour life difficult since contending at last year’s PGA Championship, but again, looked good on the big stage, finishing T26 at The Masters.
The first time these two have teamed up in this particular event, they have combined a sixth place finish (Finau with Daniel Summerhayes in 2018) and three missed cuts in this event. They should be one of the more entertaining duos.
The pair was first teamed together at the most recent QBE Shark Shootout where they finished T5.
5. Collin Morikawa & Matthew Wolff
Though just 46 years of age combined, if the Zurich had been held last fall, this pairing might have been the odds-on favorite. Morikawa, 24, won the PGA Championship last August in just his second career major start, and Wolff, 22, was the solo runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau at September’s U.S. Open.
Morikawa already has four career victories, in just over 40 career starts, a number that matches his world ranking, but he has become shockingly boom-or-bust in 2021, with a win (WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession), and three T7s in eight Tour starts, since the calendar year flipped, but several terrible results as well, and at last week’s RBC Heritage, he shot a final-round 1-over 72 while in the final pairing on Sunday to drop from T2 to T7.
Meanwhile, Wolff has been in an absolute free-fall since losing in a three-man playoff to Martin Laird at October’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open. In 11 starts, since, he has not finished better than T36 in a full-field event, and in his most recent start, he was disqualified from The Masters after signing an incorrect scorecard.
Do not feel too bad for him, though, it was after his second-round 79 and at 11-over, he was a mile over the cut line, a quintessential “You can’t fire me, I quit!” moment.
How well this pairing does this week, probably depends on which version of Morikawa shows up, but they likely have the best combination of youth and talent in the field.
4. Scottie Scheffler & Bubba Watson
The 24-year-old Scheffler has not quite notched that first PGA Tour victory yet, but he is a star in the making, and that win appears inevitable. He contended at the PGA Championship and several FedExCup playoff events last fall, and was solo-second at the recent WGC-Dell Technologies Match play, showing that he can thrive in unfamiliar formats.
If he does want that win soon, pairing up and learning from 12-time Tour winner Bubba Watson is not a bad idea. The long-hitting lefty finished T5 at the first team-play Zurich, while paired with another long hitter in J.B. Holmes.
Statistically, Bubba is having another fine season, but putting troubles have led him to post just three top 10s in 11 starts this season.
3. Patrick Cantlay & Xander Schauffele
There are five players in this week’s field that currently rank inside the world’s Top 10, and two of them make up this star pairing. Schauffele, the world No. 5, is making his first start since a T3 at The Masters, where he played in the final pairing, only to fade early, storm back into it late, and then saw his chances obliterated with a tee shot in the water on 16, an iconic hole that rarely sees water balls any more.
There are questions about his ability to close now, but he tends to have a pretty short memory.
World No. 10 Cantlay is suddenly in a shocking struggle. We are unaware of any injury issue with him, he has now missed three cuts in his last four starts: The PLAYERS Championship, The Masters (where he opened with a 79), and the RBC Heritage.
Neither seem to be in their best place at the moment, but they are too talented to stay down long, and they have shown chemistry before, going 2-2-0 as a pairing for the American Team at the 2019 Presidents Cup.
2. Ryan Palmer & Jon Rahm
The defending champions from the most recent 2019 edition of the Zurich Classic are back again, and are likely the most feared pairing in the field. One year after both players missed the cut with different partners, they found something excellent by teaming up.
The strength of this pairing is Rahm, who is ranked a field-high third in the OWGR, posting eight top tens in his last ten starts. The most recent of those starts was a T5 at The Masters, where the 26-year-old Spaniard exploded on the final day after opening with three straight rounds of even-par 72.
The so-so start may be able to be explained away by the fact that Rahm’s wife had given birth to their first child just days before.
Palmer, meanwhile, played well enough last season to make the Tour Championship field, and in 2021, has finished inside the top 25 in more than half his starts, including a pair of top-4s in January.
Many would be surprised to learn that Palmer is sixth on Tour in birdie average, which actually ranks higher than Rahm. Successful championship defenses do not happen much on Tour these days, but it is really hard to not be extremely confident in the chances of these two.
1. Marc Leishman & Cameron Smith
This Aussie tandem might have been the most relevant pair in this field at the recent Masters Tournament. Smith, who finished T2 at Augusta in November, surged and fell in and out of the mix several times two weeks ago, posting a T10.
Meanwhile, Leishman, whose game has sunk to some shocking depths in the past year, was tied for second place through 54 holes before a pedestrian Sunday 73 meant a still-impressive T5 finish.
Smith has won at TPC Louisiana before, teaming up with Sweden’s Jonas Blixt to win on a fifth playoff hole in the 2017 edition. This is Leishman’s first attempt in this tournament, but team play is nothing new for him, as he has played in the Presidents Cup four times.
The two first teamed together in the World Cup (2018), where they finished second in a 28-team event. They were also paired together last December in the QBE Shark Shootout, where they finished 8th.
Next Five: Talor Gooch & Max Homa, Chris Kirk & Brendon Todd, Justin Rose & Henrik Stenson, Louis Oosthuizen & Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace & Harold Varner III