Tour journeymen shine in the rain at Zurich


AVONDALE, La. – Every PGA Tour player is looking for a spark.

It’s why some change putters.

And why others change perspective.

And why a few even change caddies.

That’s the common thread among a few of the early contenders here at the weather-delayed Zurich Classic. Brian Stuard, Derek Ernst and J.J. Henry haven’t played well this season, but they all made a slight tweak entering this week, hoping it would change their fortunes.

And they all shot 67 or better Thursday.

Start with Stuard, who leads after a bogey-free 64 at TPC Louisiana. With only conditional status on Tour, he’s played just six events this calendar year. It hasn’t gone well – he had five consecutive missed cuts before a tie for 55th last week in San Antonio.

But Tuesday of Texas Open week, he grabbed a different Odyssey putter next to the practice green, stroked a few putts and put it in his bag. In the opening round here, he took a career-best 21 putts and holed 176 feet worth of putts, with six makes over 10 feet.

When asked how his putter heated up, Stuard shrugged.

“I wish I knew,” he said.

After finishing last season at No. 128 in FedEx Cup points, Stuard’s schedule has been unpredictable. That he’s played poorly when he actually did get a chance has only hurt his priority ranking.

“It’s definitely tough, not sure what your schedule is going to be even next week,” he said. “But you’ve just got to deal with it.”

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Ernst hasn’t been getting many reps, either – the Zurich is just his sixth start this season, after graduating from the Tour Finals last fall.

Next week is the three-year anniversary of his victory at Quail Hollow, which remains one of the most surprising wins in recent memory. Then a 22-year-old rookie, Ernst was the fourth alternate that week who prevailed in a playoff.

Since then, he has recorded only four top-25s with 46 missed cuts.

“I’ve learned,” said Ernst, who opened with 67. “It’s not frustrating if you’re learning. I’ve got a free ride. I won a golf tournament. Instead of being in mini-tour stuff, I’m on the PGA Tour. I haven’t played any other Tour than the PGA Tour. I’ve gotten a free ticket to learn from all the best guys in the world.”

That includes time management and how to “be smart about everything.” Soon, the 25-year-old can pick his peers’ brains about being a father, as his wife is expecting the couple’s first child, a girl, in July.

“It puts golf in perspective,” he said, “where golf isn’t really anything at all. Who cares about golf? My wife and my new baby are going to be the most important thing to me.”

Henry, in his 16th season on Tour, has been through that phase and knows all about weathering the inevitable peaks and valleys of a pro career.

Since winning the opposite-field Barracuda Championship last August, he has gone 16 events without a top-30. For Henry, 41, his spark perhaps came from bringing in longtime friend and coach Justin Poynter as his caddie this week.

“It’s nice to have another set of eyes on you as opposed to just talking to him about what’s going on,” Henry said. “He can actually see it.”

And it all looked good Thursday, with Henry matching his best round of the season (67).

Though he’s still cashing a check most weeks, he hasn’t finished better than 63rd in his last seven appearances.

“It can wear on you,” he said. “You feel like you’re doing something right, but for whatever reason it doesn’t go as planned on the weekend. And I always say, it’s not how you start, but it’s how you finish out here. Every week a guy scrapes along, barely makes the cut, gets hot on the weekend and posts a top-five or a top-10. I just haven’t been able to do that.”

Which is why, for this trio at least, the excitement of seeing an improved score is tempered by the reality that this form could be fleeting; that on Friday, or this weekend, they could revert to their season-long norm. This season, after all, they have accounted for zero top-40 finishes in 20 combined starts.

“I know what to expect with all of the time I’ve been out here,” Henry said, “and it’s just that one round or that one week to get the momentum and you ride it for a long time.”

That’s the hope, anyway.