ZURICH CLASSIC: The Big Easy is a beautiful place to visit in the springtime, and as a city known for its offbeat vibe, it’s only fitting that it should play host to the PGA Tour’s only regularly-scheduled team event, the Zurich Classic.
This marks the third year since this tournament switched to a two-man team format, and though it hasn’t yet cured fans of their apathy, the players seem to like it– in years past, the Zurich Classic was a lower-rung event that was habitually skipped by the bigger names on Tour, but that’s no longer the case, as the field was littered with big names last year and many have returned, including Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, and others.
About the format: it’s two-man teams, with the eligible player (based on PGA Tour priority standings) getting to choose his partner, so long as the partner has some form of PGA Tour status or is granted a sponsor’s exemption. This makes for some unusual pairings: Brooks Koepka plays with his brother Chase, for instance, and there are several guys playing with old college teammates, friends, countrymen, etc. This creates a huge opportunity some players, as those without regular status will now get a chance to earn official money and coveted FedEx Cup points.
There will be 80 teams, with the field cut to 35 after 36 holes. On Thursday and Saturday it’ll be best ball (four-ball), and on Friday and Sunday it’ll be alternate shot (foursomes). This makes for a fun Sunday, as alternate shot is indisputably the most stressful and difficult team format. Expect a lot of movement on the leaderboard.
TPC Louisiana will serve as the host venue once again; it’s a 7,425-yard Pete Dye design that is fairly friendly by Tour standards, so we’ll see lots of birdies. Though the course is visually intimidating off the tee and oftentimes windy, all four par-5s are reachable in two for the majority of the field and the greens are spacious and rather straightforward. It took 19-under or better to win this event in 3 of the last 4 years that it was an individual stroke play tournament, and in 2017 the team of Jonas Blixt/Cameron Smith reached 27-under to take home the title (last year’s champions, Billy Horschel and Scott Piercy, finished at 22-under).
Handicapping a tournament like this is extraordinarily tricky and always will be until team golf becomes more of a regular thing, but there are a few things we can look at, including Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup record, past record in this event when it was individual stroke play, and past performance on other Pete Dye courses, as some players just seem to be more comfortable than others on Dye designs. But all that being said, I do feel that this week is more of a crapshoot than usual, so when in doubt, take the longer odds.
Here are a few suggestions:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm/Ryan Palmer (18.0)- This pairing may seem a bit odd at first glance, as these two are from different parts of the world and Palmer is 18 years older than Rahm. But the two have apparently formed a friendship over the past couple of years, and when their usual partners– Jordan Spieth for Palmer, and Wesley Bryan for Rahm– couldn’t play, they decided to team up. According to Rahm, “It kind of fit. Similar games. Felt like it was a good partnership.” While saying that Palmer and the big-hitting Spaniard have “similar games” may be somewhat of a stretch, it’s true that they both make birdies in bunches, and Palmer has had success at this event before, finishing 4th with Spieth in 2017. Rahm, meanwhile, is in the midst of a great stretch of golf, logging eight top-10s in ten PGA Tour starts this season. You can envision these guys just going nuts and shooting a ridiculous number– among the market leaders, they’re my favorite bet this week.
Cameron Champ/Sam Burns (54.0)- Champ has been struggling lately, missing the cut in each of his past three starts and breaking par just once in his last nine competitive rounds. But he sure seems like an ideal partner in this format, as he leads the Tour in driving distance and ranks 6th in birdie percentage, averaging 4.66 per round. Burns, meanwhile, is a Louisiana native and LSU alum, so he’s about as local as it gets this week. Plus, he’s found the top-25 in each of his past three starts and finished 9th at The Heritage last week, so he’s playing some great golf right now. There’s a wide range of possible outcomes for these two this week, with one realistic possibility being a victory. I think that makes them worth a bet at a price like 54.0.
Chesson Hadley/Brice Garnett (80.0)- These guys are both fairly anonymous by Tour standards, so it’s safe to say that this team is flying under the radar this week. But they’re one to watch– both Hadley and Garnett are Southerners who play their best golf on bermudagrass, and TPC Louisiana is wall-to-wall bermuda. They played very well here last year, finishing 4th, so there should be no questions about team chemistry or course fit, and they absolutely lit up the best-ball portion, firing a 61 on Saturday. Since this event has transitioned to a team format, the champions have not come from the top of the market– rather, the winning teams have been mid-market types with good chemistry and a history of success on Pete Dye and/or bermuda-heavy courses. Hadley and Garnett tick all the boxes, and at nearly 80/1, the price is right.