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zurich classic

Inside the team strategies this week at the Zurich Classic

April 20, 2021

Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson have played matches together in the Ryder Cup.

David Cannon

AVONDALE, La.—Life on the PGA Tour is as individualistic and self-centered as any in sport. For as much as modern-day players talk about the teams of people around them, ultimately, every week it’s every man for himself. Except at this week’s Zurich Classic, which switched to a team format in 2017. The first and third rounds will feature four-ball play, with the second and final rounds foursomes. For many in the field, it’s a proposition that perhaps takes a little adapting to, given the scarcity of which it is experienced.

Then there’s Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson.

The two men have played in five Ryder Cups apiece, with four of those occasions coming in the same year. Along the way, they’ve proved a formidable duo for the Europeans, compiling an impressive 6-2 mark playing alongside one another. So, it’s of little surprise the two veterans would join forces at TPC Louisiana again. It didn’t automatically guarantee success, though.

To wit, in 2017 they missed the cut.

A year later, Rose and Stenson fared better, tying for 19th. Then in 2019, Stenson had to find a new partner while Rose took a month-long break following the Masters. He and fellow Ryder Cup stalwart Graeme McDowell tied for 18th. Last year’s tournament wasn’t held because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Better ball, you’ve got to play aggressive,” Stenson said, explaining their strategy for this week. “You’ve got to play aggressive as well in the alternate shot format because the scores have generally been very low around this golf course, so you don't want to get left behind and try to make up a lot of ground.”

“The only thing that we might have learned through the years is that the alternate shot format we're probably pretty good at, that's been our strength probably in the Ryder Cup,” added Rose. “The four-ball, that's kind of an interesting one. I think the temptation is there to take on every flag because you feel like you've got a partner standing next to you, but then if you do miss a shot, now your partner's feeling like—if you're going to make an obvious bogey or double, for example, if you hit it in the water, it's very difficult for your partner to then play free golf.”

For other players, though, it’s just as important, if not more so, to have personalities that meld than it is to have a particular style of play that works off the other.

“I think you definitely want to get along with who your partner is and then you want to grab the best player you can possibly grab,” said Patrick Cantlay, who will tee it up with Xander Schauffele this week.

The team of Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff combines sharp iron play and long hitting, respectively.

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He’s not wrong. Ranked fifth in the world, Schauffele is one of the top players in the field this week, surpassed only by World No. 3 Jon Rahm and No. 4 Collin Morikawa (imagine if those two teamed up). Cantlay isn’t far behind, either, at No. 10 in the OWGR.

It helps, too, that they’ve become fast friends. At the 2019 Presidents Cup, Schauffele and Cantlay, each with a sense of humor ranging from dry to sarcastic, bonded over nightly dinners and card games. On the course, they played four matches together, going 2-2 for the week, but scored a key Saturday afternoon foursomes win over Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith as playing captain Tiger Woods sat out. The victory helped close the gap on the Internationals and the Americans went on to complete the comeback in singles the next day.

They’ve been regular practice round partners on tour since.

“I think getting along is the key to feeling comfortable and not putting more pressure on yourself because I think sometimes you can get into the team format and feel like you may be letting the other guy down,” Cantlay said. "But in this case, I'm not going to think about that once. It's just not going to be a factor.”

But dissecting TPC Louisiana from a 30,000-foot view would also be doing a disservice to the annual birdie fest—particularly for a golf course that over the last decade has yielded an average winning score of 20 under. That includes winning totals of 26 and 27 under in two of the last three editions of the tournament.

So, take the team of Morikawa and Matthew Wolff as one example of ham meeting egg. Wolff is one of the longest hitters in the game, ranking sixth on tour in driving distance. Morikawa? He’s 124th in distance but leads the tour in strokes-gained/approach. Wolff is also a terrific iron player but in the midst of an abysmal year, with a T-28 his best finish and two WDs, plus a DQ that would have been a WD anyway, in seven starts in 2021. Morikawa arrives one of the hottest players on the planet with a win and three other top-10s in nine starts this year.

“I wish I could carry it 320,” Morikawa said.

“I really don't have a thing a bad thing to say about Collin's game,” added Wolff.

Other players dive even deeper when it comes to numbers and how they impact their approach, as well as their choice in partner.

Billy Horschel has worked for years with Mark Horton on examining his statistics. He’s also won the Zurich Classic before, in 2013 on his own then again in 2018 with Scott Piercy.

This year, though, Horschel is pairing up with Sam Burns. Horton, along with Horschel’s sport psychologist Dr. Bhrett McCabe, also works with Burns. But the partnership also went deeper than a mutual connection. In years past, Horschel has taken to teeing off on the odd numbered holes in the alternate shot format because statistically, he performs well on long or difficult par 3s. Burns’ length—he ranks 20th on tour in driving distance—figures to pay off on the par 5s.

“I think being in this format for the last few years, I know what kind of partner I need for the holes that are going to be hitting shots on,” Horschel said. “Sam fit that profile to a T. There's certain things in his game that he does really well. He's a really good putter. He drives it a long way.

“So there are certain things you can look at, but it's not diving too deep into the hole, because at the end of the day, the stats can say, hey, you should be playing these holes and this guy should be playing this hole, but you’ve got to feel comfortable with the holes that you each have selected in the alternate shot format.”

The best strategy? It's the one that's also the simplest.

“I think the mentality of having two birdie putts on every hole is quite an important one and I've always felt like that that works slightly better than just…” Rose said before his teammate chimed in.

Said Stenson: “Than having none?”