AVONDALE, La. – If a missed cut in a team event is a problem halved, then that makes a victory twice as fun.
And fun comes easily to the lighthearted pair of Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith, who laughed their way through another flawless round to take a four-shot lead into the final round of the Zurich Classic.
That margin seems even wider considering the upcoming better-ball format. With winds expected to again gust up to 35 mph, teams in pursuit likely will need a round in the low-60s to have any chance of catching Blixt and Smith, who now can share the pressure of holding the 54-hole lead.
“It’s just like having a backup,” Smith said.
Smith, a 22-year-old Aussie, moved to Jacksonville, Fla., less than a year ago and became good friends with Blixt, a 33-year-old Swede. They share the same trainer, even though they both look like they’ve never seen the inside of a weight room. “No, we don’t really work out,” Blixt said, “but we’ve got the same physio.”
Smith’s caddie, Sam Pinfold, lives with Blixt, and apparently he’s the genesis of this partnership. “We didn’t talk to each other,” Blixt chuckled. “We went through our caddies.”
Here in New Orleans, they’ve giggled their way through every interview and gotten into the team spirit by wearing similarly colored outfits. Sure, there was a slight mix-up with the scripting Friday – Smith had to return to his bedroom to change into white pants – but they could have won tie-dye shirts and jorts and still played well. Their better-ball 62 gave them a one-shot lead at the halfway point.
More than any wardrobe choice, Blixt and Smith have gelled because of their comparable games. Both are average-length hitters with tidy short games; Blixt is one of the best putters on Tour, while Smith leads in strokes gained-around the green.
Through 54 holes, they have yet to make a bogey – a stat even more impressive when you consider that every other team has dropped at least three shots.
“It’s just fun,” Blixt said. “It’s like going back to play as a kid. You just go out there and have fun and try to make birdies, and I don’t feel like there’s any stress at all out there and there’s no pressure. He’s always got my back, and I try to have his.”
Tasked with chasing down the lead group are longtime pals and Aiken, S.C., residents Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown, who shot a Saturday-best 67 in alternate shot. The surprise wasn’t their score but that they weren’t near the top of the leaderboard sooner – they’re a formidable duo that has known each other since age 10.
“We play so much together,” Kisner said, “that we literally can talk to each other about every shot and know exactly what the other one is thinking.”
Charley Hoffman and Nick Watney, also four back, aren’t quite that close, but they’re rock-solid ball-strikers who can thrive in the gusty conditions.
“Somebody will probably shoot 9 or 10 under,” Watney said. “Hopefully it’s not the guys in front of us.”
A target final-round score of 62 (and a four-round total around 25 under) is what Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer expect to need to win on Sunday. The Texans should have been even closer to the lead, if not for four misses inside 5 feet on Saturday, including a demoralizing shorty on 18. Now, they’re five shots back and in need of a final-day rally – and some help – to become the first team champion crowned on Tour since 1981.
“We’ll just go for broke tomorrow,” Palmer said. “We have a good chance.”
But in better-ball, it’s easy for players to fall into the trap of playing too aggressively and forcing the issue. The key to the format is to have two putts for birdie on as many holes as possible, and also to “ham-and-egg” it – to make it a team effort and spread out the birdies at the right time.
“We’ve been doing that pretty good,” Blixt said. “Just need to keep doing that.”
Their victory celebration depends on it.