For years it was a gadget used in network television. When a drama had run out of plot twists, introduce an evil twin to stir some renewed interest. Last week in New Orleans the PGA Tour trotted out their version of the evil twin, the Zurich Classic, which was played as a partnered event. Two-man teams competed for the top prizes and perks that accompany a PGA Tour win, in a format not used in over three decades on the Tour.
Outside of majors and big events, Tour stops have seen diminished fields when it comes to ranked players. So in the wake of the Masters, and in advance of the Players Championship, the PGA Tour tried to entice players to the Crescent City by letting them pick their teams. And that generated a bundle of storylines built around the pairs.
Ryder Cup teammates Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson teamed up; World #2 Jason Day and #9 Rickie Fowler joined forces. Bombers Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes put on a long-drive show. A couple of gentrified Wisconsin natives, Jerry Kelly and Steve Stricker, played as partners for the second straight week coming off a Champions Tour event. At the opposite end of the age scale, 19 year-old Ryan Ruffels, picked by Kyle Stanley, got a taste of the PGA Tour.
The Tour had one more twist to make the Zurich Classic even more interesting: the playing format. Borrowing from the success of the Ryder Cup, the first and third days of the tournament were played as foursomes (alternate shot), a two-hands-on-the-wheel ride for the duos. On Friday and Sunday, it was drag racing with the four-balls (best ball) to light up the leaderboard. Unlike the Cup matches, all were played at stroke play.
As the week unfolded, form held over history. Rose and Stenson were 4-2 as Ryder Cup partners but failed to make the weekend. While Rose chased Sergio Garcia to the finish line at Augusta, Stenson has not excelled since his Open Championship and Olympic second last summer. Fowler had an impressive win at Honda, but Day has been in and out the game with issues and has no top 10s since his runner-up finish to Jimmy Walker at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
Despite missing the cut, Fowler gave the new concept a thumbs up on his way out the door. “We had a blast out there between the two of us, our caddies,” he said. “It was fun being able to work together and be a team where normally you just happen to be in the same group and enjoy each other’s company, but to be a part of a team event was special.”
Ultimately every tournament is judged by the outcome. Did a player of stature add his name to the event’s roster of champions? Was the golf in the new format compelling enough to validate the concept? In New Orleans the answer was a split. Playoff winners Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith had only the one PGA Tour win by Blixt on their resume.
What should have been an electric conclusion on Sunday was blunted when they needed electricity after the 72nd hole, which didn’t produce a winner. And a sudden death playoff the next morning is about as anonymous as an outcome can be.
But both playoff teams had enough excellence in their week to deserve accolades. Blixt and Smith played all 72 holes in regulation and the four playoff holes without an over-par hole. At the start of Sunday’s round, it appeared as if Brown and Kisner were going to birdie the entire final round. They rang up eight straight at the start, including six in a row by Kisner.
And just when they looked like they were running away from the field, the train stalled. Blixt and Smith, with three birdies at the start and three more at the end of their final nine, looked to be winners. With nothing to lose because of his partner’s position, Kisner put the stalled train up to full throttle and battered the flagstick with his third shot. His ball dropped for eagle, forcing the playoff. Monday morning’s sudden death was not so sudden, needing four extra holes to decide it. Smith’s birdie from three feet brought down the curtain.
The next test for the new event will come in a year. This year’s field had a greater proportion of top-ranked players than in recent years. If the report to outsiders is positive and New Orleans can do no worse than hold serve, the evil twin may have found a place on the PGA Tour.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.