The Zurich Classic of New Orleans has always been a tough event to handicap, but this year things get even trickier. With a new format featuring two-man team play, picking a winner becomes that much more difficult.
The Big Easy, the big purse, the spicy food, the good times. None of that was often enough to lure many of the big time players to TPC Louisiana for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in previous years. In 2017, however, the PGA Tour has spiced things up in Cajun Country, and before anybody has even hit their first golf shot the changes are already a huge success.
In 2016, 23 players ranked inside the Top 100 in the world played the Zurich Classic. This year, 46 in the Top 100 will be in attendance, 24 of which rank inside the Top 50 and 6 of the world's Top 10. The Tour has transformed a relatively stale stroke-play event that sat inconveniently on the schedule, situated between the Masters and the Players Championship, and turned it into a very intriguing team play event that has the players genuinely excited about taking part.
The tournament remains a 72-hole stroke-play event. Teams of two will compete. The winning duo will each receive individual FedEx Cup points, each will earn roughly $1 million and each will earn a two year exemption on Tour. Thursday and Saturday will be Foursomes, which is alternate shot. Friday and Sunday will be Four Ball, which is the best ball between the two teammates. There will be a cut after the 2nd round with the Top 35 teams and ties advancing to the weekend. One very cool twist is that the players were given the freedom to choose their teammate for the tournament. You will note that many friends, college teammates, fellow countrymen, Ryder Cup partners, etc. are paired together this week.
As far as what it takes to win at TPC Louisiana, that is somewhat of a mystery. More so than any other course on Tour, The Zurich very much lacks a definitive set of skills that produces results year in and year out. Neither Driving Distance nor Driving Accuracy seem to matter much. Greens in Regulation has proven to be an indicator -- but what kind of news is that? Players who have putted well and scrambled well have had success here, but this can be misleading as the course features some of the easiest greens to putt on the circuit.
Pete Dye designed TPC Louisiana, so we can look to some other Dye designs on Tour for telling information. This combined with the fact that the tournament has typically been a birdie fest, I would also look at Birdie Percentage in my handicap. Perhaps what angle I prefer most, however, is looking at the skill sets of each player on each team. What I want when forecasting success is almost polar opposites. One guy who bombs it and one guy who is very accurate. One guy who is fantastic tee-to-green and one guy who putts lights out, one guy who is a wizard with a wedge, one guy who is tremendous with his long irons. As is so often true in team play events on any level, a "ham & egg" effort goes a long way. I would rather have a contrast in styles between the two players who complement each other vs. two players that succeed in very similar ways.
The weather is also of note here this week. Thursday looks very benign with Friday getting fairly breezy and then the weekend gets pretty nasty. Winds are expected to blow over 25 mph and Sunday will almost surely include thunderstorms.
Jason Day & Rickie Fowler (+736 Pinnacle): With injury, illness and most recently his mother's illness, Day has been inconsistent at best this season. Fowler was brilliant in the wind at the Masters until folding on the final day in perfect conditions. Day has finished 5th and 4th the last two years in New Orleans.
Justin Rose & Henrik Stenson (+740 Pinnacle): Paired together in Ryder Cup play and also dueling down the stretch in Rio at the Olympic Games to finish with gold & silver, respectively, these two major champions are very familiar with one another. Stenson has missed three cuts in a row on Tour and Rose may still be dealing with his near miss at the Masters. Rose won the Zurich Classic in 2015.
Jordan Spieth & Ryan Palmer (+1138 Pinnacle): Two Texans who are good friends and have great complimentary games. Spieth ranks 2nd on Tour in Greens in Regulation, 2nd in Birdie Average and 8th in Putting Average. Palmer bangs it off of the tee and ranks 12th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green. Their Texas roots ought to give them an edge playing in the wind this weekend.
Daniel Berger & Thomas Pieters (+1617 Bookmaker): Both of these young players are having excellent seasons, and Pieters showed his prowess for team play at the Ryder Cup last Fall. Berger is 15th in Birdie Average and putts very well on Bermuda Grass greens. Pieters is 13th in Birdie Average and 10th in Putting Average. Berger finished 27th at the Masters, Pieters was 4th.
J.B. Holmes & Bubba Watson (+3257 Bookmaker): Two of the longest of the bombers off of the tee, Bubba won here in 2011 and Holmes has finished Top 15 twice. Watson has also won twice at another Pete Dye design, TPC River Highlands.
Luke Donald & Jamie Lovemark (+4000 5Dimes): Lovemark lost in a playoff here last year, while Donald has posted two Top 10 finishes at TPC Louisiana. Good complimentary games here and Donald has had great success on Dye courses, at both Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass.
The Long Shots
Byeong Hun An & Seung-Yul Noh (+4200 5Dimes): Like Lovemark, Hun An was also a loser in the playoff here last season while his partner, Noh, won this event in 2014. Both players bang it off of the tee. Noh is a solid putter and is fantastic out of the sand. An is yet to miss a cut this season.
Tony Finau & Daniel Summerhays (+5000 5Dimes): Certainly one of the best complimentary pairings in the field as Summerhays drives it straight and putts very well. Finau is huge off of the tee, ranking 7th in Strokes Gained and 8th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green. He is 22nd in Birdie Average and 7th in Greens in Regulation. Summerhays has two Top 30 finishes here in four tries.
Harris English & Hudson Swafford (+5892 Pinnacle): A pairing of University of Georgia Bulldogs and close friends. Swafford won earlier this year on a Pete Dye course at the Career Builder Challenge, and English has had arguably his greatest success as a pro in a team event. The Franklin Templeton Shootout is not an official Tour event, but paired with Matt Kuchar, English has finished 1-2-2-1 the last four years.
Louis Oosthuizen & Branden Grace (+1523 Pinnacle): The bad news here is that neither one of these players has played this tournament before, but I love the camaraderie the two South Africans share and the complimentary styles in their games. In the 2015 President's Cup, they were paired together four times and swept the board. Louis is a sweet-swinging ball striker and accurate bomber off of the tee. Grace excels in Hole Proximity, Scrambling, and can get streaky hot with the putter. Grace has shown an affinity for Pete Dye courses with a win last year and an 11th-place finish this year at the RBC Heritage. He's never missed a cut at the Players Championship. And how about the wind? Oosthuizen finished 21st at the Honda Classic this season, while Grace was 10th last week at the Valero and 13th this year at the Sony in Hawaii. With the stats, the results, and the intangibles all lining up, I think they have all the tools to make for a very strong pairing this week.