Zurich Classic's switch to team play has brought excitement to a previously ho-hum week
Jon Rahm and Ryan Palmer celebrate their 2019 Zurich Classic victory.
AVONDALE, La.—Cameron Smith has three top-10s, including a runner-up, in five appearances at the Masters, a success rate that he attributes in large part to that week’s departure from the monotony of regular PGA Tour golf and the creativity required around the golfing brilliance that is Augusta National. Perhaps, too, that same logic explains his play at the Zurich Classic, a tournament that he won in 2017 in the event’s first year as a team competition, with two rounds apiece of four-ball and foursomes replacing stroke play.
Smith did miss the cut in the next two editions of the tournament, but a win is a win. And the event’s change from a ho-hum, 72-hole stroke-play event to its current format seems to be working as well.
“I like the four-ball, it gives a bit of a relaxed feel, an aggressive feel,” Smith said. “Then foursomes [alternate shot], you just really got to grind it out. The course is in great condition this week, it's as firm and fast as I've seen it, so I'm sure it will be a good test for foursomes and then, yeah, four-ball, we just free up and try and shoot as low as we can.”
He’s not alone in that sentiment when it comes to the pouring down of positivity this week at TPC Louisiana, where the other kind of rain has often been the story of the week.
“Yeah, there's nothing I would change about it,” added Jon Rahm. “I think it's a really good format the way it is. Really fun.”
Of course, it is to the Spaniard. He won it the last time it was played in 2019, teaming up with Ryan Palmer for the victory. But even those who have never played the tournament are looking forward to it.
“There's a lot of gettable holes and I think that's what makes this week really fun is that it's a different format,” said Collin Morikawa.
“When Collin came to me and asked me if I wanted to play on the team, I immediately said, yes,” added his partner, Matthew Wolff. “I was like, that sounds amazing, and I've been playing with him for so long and you kind of just have to soak it in a little bit.”
Full disclosure: Morikawa is one of three paid Zurich ambassadors (Justin Rose and Billy Horschel are the others). Still, four years on and after last season’s tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone from the tour, to players without financial connections, to the sponsor, to tournament organizers seem to be soaking it in, too. And why not?
Once an overlooked stop sandwiched between the Masters and the Players Championship (more recently the PGA Championship), the tournament in recent years often lacked star power much less an identity. And while 72 holes of stroke play is the purest determinant of the best player each week on tour, it became clear that something different was needed in the Big Easy.
The first year of the new team format was telling: It drew seven of the top 11 and 13 of the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
The luster hasn’t worn off, either. This year’s field includes five of the top 10 in the OWGR—Rahm, Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, Tyrrell Hatton and Patrick Cantlay—and 11 major champions. Two of the teams—Rose/Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen/Charl Schwartzel—include a pair of major winners. And there are seven more top-25 players in the field, too.
“I think they really, really like the event,” a source familiar with the relationship between the tour, title sponsor Zurich and the players said.
It’s easy to understand why.
For one, there’s nothing like the Zurich Classic on tour. As much as players are creatures of habit, the shake-up in format has been a refreshing change. It was also helpful in the event’s second year that it switched to its current rotation of having four-balls during the first and third rounds and foursomes during the second and final round, when the most is at stake.
“I think reversing that to playing foursomes on Sunday it makes for a more exciting finish, when you're playing that alternate-shot format,” Palmer said. “That adds a little more pressure on that type of format for sure.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case for Rahm and Palmer in 2019, when they began the day tied for the lead, surged to a two-stroke advantage two holes in and ended up winning by three. The year before, however, Billy Horschel and Scott Piercy took the lead halfway through the final round, then hung on to win by a stroke, with the outcome coming down to the final hole of regulation when Jason Dufner left a 14-foot putt to force a playoff just short.
The team format has also made for some fascinating duos, ranging from the star-studded, to former college teammates, to the oddball. It also has produced plenty of fireworks. Four years ago, Retief Goosen and Tyrone Van Aswegen made a run at combining for a 59 during Friday’s foursomes play. And in two of the last three years the winning total has been 26 and 27 under par.
There are other factors that have contributed to continuing to attract a strong field. If a player’s partner isn’t eligible for the field, he can still get in on a sponsor exemption, which is why Brooks Koepka and younger brother Chase teed it up at TPC Louisiana in 2017. Also, with no world ranking points at stake, the tournament doesn’t count against a player’s divisor, which takes some of the pressure off when it comes to putting together a schedule.
Is there room for improvement, though?
“I don't know what you would do to change it,” Palmer said, before his teammate interjected.
Said Rahm: “Keep it the way it is."