Variety is the spice of life, and the PGA Tour is offering up an ambrosial banquet in Cajun Country this week. Taking a break from the traditional post-Masters grind of Southern stroke-play events, the Zurich Classic, the Tour’s annual stop in New Orleans, is mixing things up with team tournament frenzy.
A field of 160 golfers, split into 80 teams of two, will square off in a ferocious battle to determine who is the Dynamic Duo of the PGA.
It will be two days of foursomes and two days of four-ball, in what is not pure match play, but an eclectic hybrid of match and stroke play formats. Aggregate results from each day will be tallied and low score will be declared champion, with the two members of the winning team being awarded the same kind of purse, exemptions, and FedEx Cup points that accompany all the standard PGA events.
The players in the inaugural version of the new-look Zurich Classic are not your typical guinea pigs, but an impressive collection of the world’s greatest, including Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, and Justin Thomas.
It is the same entrancing elite-level play that makes the PGA the best show in sports, coated in an exciting, unfamiliar lacquer. It is the perfect twist at the perfect time.
While the drastic format change makes 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 current at two victories. With none of those nine players in the field this week, that will not change for at least one more year. 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 four 72-hole Zurich champions (weather shortened it to 54 holess last year) have finished -19 or better.
Name: TPC Louisiana
Where: Avondale, Louisiana
Distance: 7425 yards, par 72
Architect: Pete Dye
Winning Share: $1,022,400 apiece
FedEx Cup Points: 400 each. For FedEx Cup purposes, the winning team will be considered the top two finishers. In most tournaments, the winner receives 500 points with the runner-up getting 300. For the Zurich Classic, the 800 points awarded for the top two positions will be split evenly between the two players on the team.
Format: The teams of two will be playing an alternate shot format on Thursday and Saturday, and best ball on Friday and Sunday.
The defending champion of the Zurich Classic is Brian Stuard. Exceptionally poor weather truncated the tournament to a three-day Monday finish.
Stuard won the tournament with a birdie on the second playoff hole, after he, Jamie Lovemark, and Byeong Hun-An were tied after 54 holes of regulation. Amazingly, Stuard was bogey-free for the entire tournament.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Justin Rose
2014: Seung-yul Noh
2013: Billy Horschel
2012: Jason Dufner
2011: Bubba Watson
Lowest Final Score (All Time): 262, -26, Chip Beck (1988)
Lowest Final Score (TPC LA): 266, -22, Justin Rose (2015)
Low Round (All Time): 61 (Paul Stankowski)
Low Round (TPC LA): 62 (Ben Martin)
Round 1: 3:30-6:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 2: 3:30-6:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 3: 1:00-2:30 PM – Golf Channel | 3:00-6:00 PM – CBS
Round 4: 1:00-2:30 PM – Golf Channel | 3:00-6:00 PM – CBS
Storyline 1: Team Play
The Zurich Classic will mark the first time (outside of the Ryder Cup or President’s Cup) since the 1980s that a PGA Tour event will feature a team play format. It is an exciting development that is sure to engender increased tournament viewership.
The change brought a bigger (160 players) and stronger-than-usual field to New Orleans. While the players will tee off in foursomes, each team is ultimately competing against the other 79 teams, meaning the Zurich is not match play. The top 35 teams plus ties will make the weekend cut.
There are many great teams in the field, but here are the five to watch most closely:
5. Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer
No disrespect meant towards Ryan Palmer, the 40-year-old three-time Tour winner, who has been one of the better players in golf for nearly a decade, but many are mildly disappointed that the immensely popular Spieth isn’t teaming up with one of his close #SB2K17 buddies (Rickie Fowler, Smylie Kaufman, Justin Thomas) or even Patrick Reed – who Spieth has formed an unstoppable duo with at the last two Ryder Cups.
That being said, Spieth is getting Palmer at the right time. After an extremely discouraging start to the season for Palmer, where he missed five cuts in seven events with finishes of T49 and T37 in the other two, his game has been coming around as of late.
Two weeks ago, Palmer finished T11 at the RBC Heritage, which he followed up with a T6 at last week’s Valero Texas Open, highlighted by his Friday and Saturday 68s in difficult conditions.
Spieth’s season, conversely, has been going in the opposite direction. After finishing in the top 10 of his first four 2017 tournaments, including a win and a pair of thirds, Spieth has failed to crack the top 10 of his last five events.
The last we saw of Spieth was at The Masters, where he was in contention through three rounds, but imploded with a Sunday 75. Spieth’s driving has been less than stellar this year, but he has been phenomenal in every other facet of his game, which is largely reflected in his third place ranking in Tour scoring average.
4. Hideki Matsuyama and Hideto Tanihara
The two Japanese players in the field, Matsuyama and Tanihara, are paired together this week, and both have done lots to make Japan proud this season. Ranked No. 4 in the world, it has been a banner season thus far for Matsuyama, who has two wins and two runner-ups in 11 events.
However, his play has dropped off considerably since he won the Phoenix Waste Management Open (for the second consecutive year) in early February, with a T11 at The Masters his only finish of better than T25 since. His game has been wildly inconsistent in his last five outings, but nobody doubts that the talent is there. This will be his first try at TPC Louisiana.
Tanihara does not quite have the resume of Matsuyama, but he proved himself a furious competitor with a fourth place finish at the recent WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, sweeping group play, including a day one upset of Jordan Spieth.
This will be just the 11th PGA Tour start in the past three years for Tanihara, but the 38-year-old has been playing the best golf of his career.
3. Justin Thomas and Bud Cauley
This intriguing duo combines the season MVP so far with a man who has looked fantastic as of late. Thomas, currently third in the FedEx Cup standings, started his season about as well as anyone could reasonably expect to. His first five starts were highlighted by three wins.
In that last win, at the Sony Open in mid-January, Thomas carded an unbelievable first round 59 and set the all-time PGA Tour record for lowest final score in any tournament (253). Struggles since the Hawaii swing, however, have lead many to question if he peaked too early.
In seven starts since the Sony Open, Thomas has just one quality finish: a T5 at the WGC-Mexico Championship. In the other six tournaments of that stretch, he has three missed cuts and nothing better than a T22.
Cauley’s season, on the other hand, has been decidedly anti-Thomas. His start was dreadful as he missed four cuts in his first five events. He looked like he had broken out of that slump with T3 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in late-January, but he had struggled until two weeks ago. His tournament low 63 in the first round of the RBC Heritage turned into a T9, which he followed up with another top 10 at last week’s Valero Texas Open, where he co-lead after two rounds.
2. Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose
One of two teams in the field where both members are in the world top 10 (Stenson is 6th, Rose is 8th), the Stenson/Rose duo could be the most intimating in the field.
Those who watched The Olympics last year are especially familiar with this team: Rose won the gold medal and Stenson took silver. They were also paired together three times at the 2016 Ryder Cup, with all three coming against the Spieth/Reed buzzsaw. Stenson/Rose went 1-2 in those three matches, although that one win was a 5&4 shellacking in Friday afternoon fourballs. They played well, but it was not quite the 3-0-0 they put together as a team at the 2014 Ryder Cup.
Stenson is coming off a phenomenal 2016 season where he won the Open Championship and finished first in the European Tour’s annual Race to Dubai. He got off to a good start in the current season, with a T2 and a T7 in his first two PGA events, but as of late Stenson has been surprisingly terrible. His last three Tour starts all resulted in missed cuts (one more than he missed in all of 2016), including a nightmare Masters where he shot 77-75 in his only two rounds.
While Stenson has been struggling, Rose, the 2015 Zurich champion, has been phenomenal since the calendar flipped to 2017. He has four finishes inside the top four in just 8 events, including a recent runner-up finish at The Masters. They may need to rely on Rose if Stenson hasn’t figured things out since we last saw him on Masters Friday, but if Stenson brings the game he usually does, they could easily be the team to beat.
1. Jason Day and Rickie Fowler
The other team in the field where both members are inside the world top 10, Jason Day is currently ranked No. 3, while Fowler is ninth. Their combined average ranking (#6) is the best in the field.
Similar to the Stenson/Rose duo, this team features one player who has been great this year, while the other is in a surprising slump.
Jason Day finished 2016 ranked No. 1, but since he came back from a back injury that caused him to miss the last few months of the year, he’s looked like the world’s best golfer just once: during a second-round 64 at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am that briefly had him in the lead. He followed up that 64 with a third-round 75 to plummet out of contention, although he did still finish T5, his best in seven 2017 events.
Since Pebble, Day has not contended anywhere and has no finishes of higher than T22. He drew headlines recently when he pulled out from the first day of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play citing emotional distress regarding his mother, who has been battling lung cancer. Since then, her prognosis, thankfully, has improved after a successful surgery.
Fowler, on the other hand, looks like he is in the midst of a potential career-season. In eight events this season, an anomalous missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open has been his only finish outside the top-20, with no finish worse than T16.
He won the Honda Classic back in February and was in contention through three rounds at The Masters, although a final-round 76 dropped him to T11. He ranks near the top in nearly every major 2017 statistic so far, and is No. 1 in scoring average.
If Day and Fowler stay in recent form, they will have to rely disproportionately on Rickie’s game, but if they both play the way they are capable (Day is coming off a three-win 2016), it is difficult to see them not in contention on Sunday.
Storyline 2: Stuard’s Zurich Defense
This does not have the feel of a traditional title defense, since the format is drastically different than when Brian Stuard took the 2016 rain-shortened Zurich, but the host course is the same, and Stuard was undeniably incredible in that bogey-free performance.
Unfortunately for Stuard, however, when that one week is compared to the 31 events he has played since, it looks like something of an outlier. After that win, it would be more than three months before Stuard would finish a tournament under par again, shooting five-under in a T38 effort at the Travelers Championship.
The Zurich triumph was his only top 10 of 2016.
A testament to unbelievable stamina, Stuard has already played 18 events in the current season, more than anyone else on Tour. While being heavy on quantity, his quality starts have been lacking, as he has finished in the top 25 of just two of those 18. His best finish this season was a T16 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
His playing partner at Zurich is Chris Stroud, who has played just four events in 2017, missing the cut three times. His other start was a T8 at the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open. Last season, he finished in the top 10 of just one of the 27 events he played. He did play well in New Orleans though, finishing 8-under (T20) at the three-round tournament.
Storyline 3: The PGA Debut of the Other Koepka
Brooks Koepka has become one of the Tour’s most well-known players with one win, four runner-ups, and twenty top-10s since turning pro in 2014. He played well enough to make the 2016 American Ryder Cup team as an automatic qualifier, and has contended in a major as recently as the 2016 PGA Championship, where he finished T4.
What most do not know about Brooks though, is that he is not the only professional golfer in his family. His younger brother, Chase, plays primarily on Europe’s Challenge Tour, the same tour Brooks got his start with. He has also played three European Tour events, with his best result being a T19 at last year’s Czech Masters.
Chase has had success in the U.S., winning four tournaments in a strong collegiate career at the University of South Florida.
This will be the younger Koepka’s (Chase is 23, Brooks is 26) first crack at the PGA Tour, as Brooks chose him as his playing partner for the Zurich Classic. They will likely only go as far as Brooks takes them, but even if it took a little nepotism for Chase to make the field, he can play.
Other Notable Teams
Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay
Reed has proven at the last two Ryder Cups that he might be the best team player in America. That being said, his play has been atrocious in 2017.
Normally a top 10 machine, Reed has just one in 13 events this year, and that was in a tournament with a 32-man field. He’s missed his last three cuts, and has a round of 77 in all three. He was in contention after one round at last week’s Valero Texas Open, but a second-round 77 dropped him below the cut line.
Cantlay was once considered one of the PGA Tour’s most promising players, but injuries and personal tragedy has curtailed the early years of his career. Cantlay did not play on the PGA Tour in 2015 or 2016, but in four 2017 events, he has a runner-up and a T3. His great play in limited action suggests that the Cantlay could still have the career that most envisioned for him in 2011.
Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes
If the Zurich Classic was a distance contest, the PGA Tour could save time by just giving them the trophy now. In driving distance, Holmes was No. 1 on Tour in 2016, averaging 314.5 yards, while Watson was NO. 4.
Bubba was first in driving distance in both 2012 and 2014, and No. 2 in 2015. Their 2017 all-around play, however, has left a bit to be desired. Watson has finished better than T25 in just one of his nine 2017 events, missing the cut in three of those. Holmes was tremendous in a 2016 season, highlighted by two major top 5s, but has yet to place in the top 10 in nine 2017 events.
Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen
Team South Africa features two players who have been consistently good over the last three seasons. In 2017, Grace has not quite been as solid as he was in 2016, but he did contend at last week’s Valero Texas Open, ultimately finishing T10.
Oosthuizen, who has one major victory (2010 Open Championship) and made a playoff in two others, earned nearly $6 million between 2015 and 2016. His best 2017 finish so far in eight events was a solo-third at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Credit: PGA Tour Media, Getty Images