AVONDALE, La. – Fun and excitement. Good times and a lively atmosphere.
For once, they’re talking about the Zurich Classic, not just the tournament’s host city.
After struggling to attract star power during a quiet time on the schedule, the Zurich on Thursday will become the first official team event on the PGA Tour since 1981, when Vance Heafner and Mike Holland won at Disney World.
Based on the field assembled here – seven of the top 11, and 13 of the top 25 – and the increased media turnout, everyone is interested to see how the Big Easy stages an easygoing, freewheeling team format.
“I think that’s what we miss sometimes – the fun aspect of golf, for viewers at home, for viewers that are here, and for me personally,” Bubba Watson said. “There’s going to be some competition and a fun side of it, but at the same time, we’re going to be grinding it out and trying to win. We want to hold a trophy at the end of the day.”
There are two rounds of foursomes play (Thursday and Saturday) and two rounds of fourballs (Friday and Sunday), with a 36-hole cut to the low 35 teams and ties. Both members of the winning team will receive $1.02 million and 400 FedEx Cup points, as well as invitations to The Players, PGA Championship and Kapalua.
Players didn’t exactly pore over strokes-gained data to form their teams. Allegiances here range from college (Alabama’s Justin Thomas and Bud Cauley) to country (Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Hideto Tanihara) to state (Utah’s Tony Finau and Daniel Summerhays) to sponsor (Zurich ambassadors Jason Day and Rickie Fowler).
Hey, even brothers, in the case of Brooks and Chase Koepka.
Big bro Brooks joked that they could either wrestle by the second hole or have an incredible experience at TPC Louisiana.
“We’ve definitely hurt each other’s feelings before,” he said. “Nothing we haven’t done.”
Most of the partnerships were solidified in the fall, when the format change was first announced. Or at least that’s how it seemed to Geoff Ogilvy. With only six weeks to spare, he essentially signed up for the Tour’s version of Match.com – he called the tournament office to tell them he was interested in playing, and then he asked if anyone else had done the same.
It wasn’t until Ogilvy showed up at Hilton Head a few weeks ago that he finally found a partner: Ian Poulter, a player he’d known for nearly two decades, the man who was riding shotgun with Ogilvy on Sunday at Winged Foot when he won the U.S. Open. “It was serendipitous, really,” Ogilvy said. “We were both looking at the right time.”
Polar opposites in both personality and temperament, Ogilvy and Poulter aren’t even the oddest couple here.
Or perhaps Argentine Miguel Angel Carballo and Californian Brian Campbell.
“If you don’t get along,” Henrik Stenson said, “it’s going to be a long four days out there.”
The only two major champions paired together, Stenson and his partner, Justin Rose, have the biggest advantage this week – they’re close friends (used to live across the street from each other in Lake Nona), they possess similar games (strong ball-strikers) and they have experience partnering together in the Ryder Cup (4-2 record), the biggest pressure-cooker in golf.
“There’s no sorrys,” Stenson said. “It’s not going to be a good environment if you’re standing over the ball feeling like, Oh, I hope I don’t miss this or he gets mad at me. It’s not going to work.”
Players expect the winning score to be somewhere between 16 and 20 under par, depending on the weather. Most will play their own game, or slightly more aggressively, during fourballs. But there is the potential for sparks to fly during the two rounds of alternate shot, especially among the teams that are playing together for the first time. Throw in a forecast that calls for 30-mph winds, and …
“You’re going to see some big numbers and it’s going to be fun on TV and you may see some teammates go at it,” Billy Horschel said. “It’s going to be entertaining.”
Players have seemed especially eager to break away from the traditional 72-hole stroke-play format. The European Tour has already unveiled innovative new ideas, from night golf to six-hole tournaments, and now the biggest Tour in the world is exploring whether the same outside-the-box thinking works in the States, too. Rickie Fowler described this week as a “trial run.”
It’s revealing that even without world-ranking points, the Zurich has attracted its best field in decades. (Last year, just 10 of the top 50 in the world teed it up.) That the tournament doesn’t offer world-ranking points this week – and thus counts against a player’s divisor – might actually be a bonus.
“Guys that are playing free, that are expressing themselves, you’ll see more personality than you would maybe see, and I think we’re all looking forward to that,” Jordan Spieth said. “It’s an event that guys have not only marked down on their calendar, but have been as excited as any other event the rest of the year.”