Zurich's team format a success among players

RSS

AVONDALE, La. – During yet another weather delay at TPC Louisiana, tournament director Steve Worthy passed through the clubhouse to solicit feedback from the players who had showed up for the first team event on the PGA Tour since 1981.

The response was surprising, especially for a guy with nearly 30 years of experience running tournaments.

“I haven’t had anybody say anything negative,” he said Sunday. “I had emails from guys who missed the cut who said that it was so much fun and they can’t wait to get back next year.”

Nothing negative? From PGA Tour players?

“I would say that’s probably a first,” he said with a smile.

Monday’s finale was the culmination of five months of planning and promotion as the Zurich Classic, one of a handful of overlooked stops on the Tour schedule, underwent a dramatic restoration. It was a trial run for future events, not just in New Orleans (where the team format is under contract through 2019) but also around the country, and it proved an unqualified success long before the heavens opened and Cam Smith and Jonas Blixt strapped on their WWE-style championship belts.

Though 72-hole stroke play is the purest form of the game and often produces the most deserving champion, it was revealing that seven of the top 11 players in the world, and 13 of the top 25, came to the Crescent City for an event that annually struggles to attract the big names who don’t have financial ties to the tournament (such as Zurich ambassadors Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose).

The implication was clear: They all wanted to try something new.



“It does get a little lackadaisical out here week to week,” John Peterson said. “We do the same thing all week every week, and it gets a little old. That’s why this was so welcome. We all love team golf. I loved college golf – it was my favorite time of my life. This is about as close as it can get to that.”

Two days each of alternate shot and fourballs offered a much-needed break from the monotony of 72-hole stroke play. With no world-ranking points at stake – even more of an incentive to play, some said, because the start didn’t count against their divisor – players seemed more at ease, competing mostly for the cash, FedEx Cup boost, and personal and team pride.

“Would I want to do it every week? Probably not,” Jason Dufner said. “But a couple of weeks a year, I think it’s good for the game, and I think it’s good for us. It makes it a little bit more relaxed atmosphere. You get to have a week with a friend where we’re not trying to beat each other and we’re trying to be a team.”

Even though some of the pre-tournament favorites missed the cut (Day-Fowler; Rose-Henrik Stenson; Thomas Pieters-Daniel Berger), the early exits didn’t sting quite as badly. “A problem shared is a problem halved,” smirked Rose.

The most popular question last week was how the teams were formed, an interesting study in both psychology and relationship-building. Most were pals who shared college, state or country allegiances. Some had grown close while traveling the Tour. And a few were just plain random. Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown, the tournament runners-up, were such obvious partners that no formal request was even made.

“There was an assumption,” Kisner said. “I just asked him if he committed yet.”

The good ol’ boys didn’t exactly overflow with team spirit, but they were so desperate to contend that they “sneaky practiced” together the previous week at Palmetto. Next year should involve even more preparation, with Worthy mentioning the possibility of adding walk-up music, team names and uniforms.

Despite some initial concern that scores and tempers could spike in the uncomfortable alternate-shot format, the average for Rounds 1 and 3 was a shade under par (71.907) on the modest, nondescript layout. (TPC Louisiana is under contract through at least 2019, but there are rumblings locally that the event could – and should – move to the recently redesigned Bayou Oaks, which aspires to join Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines as one of the country’s premier public-access courses.)

Not surprisingly, better-ball play produced more fireworks, with the team of Retief Goosen-Tyrone Van Aswegen making a run at 59 on Friday, and several teams pushing into double digits under par on Sunday, including Kisner and Brown’s closing 12-under 60.

Kelly Kraft also took it deep in the final round, combining with Kevin Tway to fire a 61. Afterward, Kraft raved about the experience, describing his third-place finish, with a partner, as even more rewarding than his runner-up showing earlier this year at Pebble Beach.

“That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a golf tournament, playing with one of my best friends and having someone to celebrate with you, not just you and your caddie out there,” Kraft said. “I hope they keep this tournament around. It was really fun.”

More than a dozen players took to Twitter to share their enthusiasm and support for the event and its format change.

And it wasn’t just the Tour types who were interested, either. TV ratings for the first round were the best for the event since at least 2007, and an estimated 25,000 fans were on the grounds Saturday – by far the most in the dozen years that the tournament has been held at TPC Louisiana.

“When we announced the format change, we had hoped for good things,” said Worthy, CEO of the Fore!Kids Foundation. “I certainly thought we’d see a boost in the field and spectator attendance and interest. And while I had high expectations, this has certainly exceeded that. It’s been great to hear all the good things from the most important people, which is the players and our spectators.”

All of the good vibes have sparked an obvious question: Should the Tour introduce even more alternative formats?

Commissioner Jay Monahan has already floated the idea of a mixed team event at the Tournament of Champions to start the year. This week, the European Tour will debut GolfSixes, with six-hole matches between two-man teams. Even an event with a limited set of clubs could be a fun twist in the fall.

After the success of the Zurich, Worthy said, “I certainly think there would be more interest in exploring other opportunities.”

Of course, having too many outside-the-box tournaments appears gimmicky and could damage the Tour’s brand. After all, a player’s livelihood is at stake, and it shouldn’t necessarily be determined by whether he can hit a 6-iron through a hula hoop while blindfolded.

“Just once or twice a year, because it adds something different,” Fowler said. “You don’t want to have too many – then it doesn’t have a unique-kind-of-week feel to it.”

Striking that balance is the upcoming challenge for Monahan and Co. But if Worthy’s informal survey was any indication, the commissioner should have the full support of an enthusiastic member base.

“‘Fun’ is probably the word that I heard the most this week,” Worthy said.

Refreshing, isn’t it?