We're off to Louisiana this week on the PGA Tour event for a change from the norm at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Read Steve Rawlings' detailed take on the pairs event here...
“I know we’ve only had one edition in this format so we can’t draw too many conclusions but last year’s winners were 120.0119/1 shots before the off and the beaten playoff protagonists were 80.079/1 chances. Outsiders fared well here before they changed the format so I’m taking it very easy before the off and I’ve just thrown a few pounds at Ben Crane and Alex Cejka, who both arguably should have won a Players Championship at Sawgrass.”
The Zurich Classic of New Orleans dates all the way back to 1938 and it's been an annual PGA Tour stop since 1958.
The likes of Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson (twice) and Seve, to name but five former champions, have all won the title so it has plenty of history but after a number of years where the strength of the fields had been waning, there's was a dramatic change to the format last year and the event changed from being an ordinary stroke stroke play tournament to a team event and it did the trick.
There were just 23 of the world's top-100 in the line-up in the 2016 edition - last year there were 24 players from the top-50 and this year, for the first time since 1984, all four reigning major champions are in the line-up! Whatever we punters may think of the format, the players have certainly given it a thumbs up.
In a change to last year's format, the 72-hole stroke play tournament will feature four-ball (best ball) during the first and third rounds and foursomes (alternate shot) during the second and fourth rounds. Last year the Four-Ball format was in play during rounds two and four.
The starting field consists of 80 teams (160 players). Each of the top available players from the PGA Tour Priority Rankings that have committed to the tournament has chosen a partner, who in turn must have PGA Tour status, unless they're a sponsor's exemption. The low 35 teams and ties after 36 holes will make the cut.
TPC Louisiana, Avondale, Louisiana
Par 72 -7,425 yards
TPC Louisiana made its event debut in 2005 but just a year later the tournament returned to its old venue, English Turn, after Hurricane Katrina devastated this venue. The event returned in 2007 and it's been played here ever since.
TPC Louisiana, like Hilton Head a fortnight ago, is a Bermuda grass Pete Dye design. Built on 250 acres of former swamp land, the course has 71 bunkers and 20 acres of the site are covered in sand! Water is in play on eight holes and the average-sized greens usually run at around 11 on the stimpmeter.
It's an easy course for the pros and Brian Stuard's winning total of 15-under-par two years ago was the highest winning score in six years. In rain-softened conditions in 2015, Justin Rose won with a 22-under-par total. Under the new format 12 months ago, two teams reached 27-under-par - the winners, Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt, and the beaten playoff protagonists, Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown.
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Last Five Winners
2017 - Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt -27 (playoff)
2016 - Brian Stuard -15 (playoff)
2015 - Justin Rose -22
2014 - Seung-Yul Noh -19
2013 - Billy Horschel -20
What Will it Take to Win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans?
There were no stats produced last year and I doubt there will be this time around either but we can look back to the old format for statistical clues.
What you do off the tee here is irrelevant. The fairways are generous but that doesn't immediately hand the initiative to the big hitters. Stuard ranked only 79th for Driving Distance two years ago and the average DD ranking for the previous ten course winners was 27.1. And the average Driving Accuracy ranking for the 11 course winners prior to the format change was 37.45.
Greens In Regulation has been a fairly important stat here, with seven of the 11 winners ranking inside the top-ten for GIR but Stuard managed to get the job done in 2016 ranking only 73rd. He owed his success to a great short game and a red-hot putter.
Stuard ranked first for Scrambling, Sand Saves, Putting Average, Putts Per Green in Regulation and for Strokes Gained Putting and he made every single putt (more than 40) inside ten feet. The 2015 winner, Justin Rose, also ranked number one for Putting Average and six of the last seven winners before the format change ranked inside the top-ten for that stat.
Is There an Angle In?
Form at other Pete Dye courses is worth looking at as there are numerous examples of players playing well at different Dye designs.
The aforementioned Rose has finished fourth in a Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, he was seventh on debut at Hilton Head back in 2004, in the RBC Heritage (an event he rarely plays), and he's contended numerous times at River Highlands, where they hold the Travelers Championship. He was fourth behind Jason Day at the 2015 USPGA Championship at Whistling Straits and third behind Rory McIlroy at Kiawah Island in 2012.
Bubba Watson is another to have won here and fared well at other Dye designs. He was narrowly beaten by Martin Kaymer (who himself is a multiple Pete Dye designed winner) at Whistling Straits in 2010 and he's twice won the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands.
Only two weeks ago we witnessed the reigning Players Champ, Si Woo Kim, reach a playoff at Hilton Head and following defeat in extra time here 12 months ago, Kevin Kisner has now lost a playoff at three different Pete Dye tracks, having also lost a playoff at both Hilton Head and Sawgrass in 2015. Anyone with form at Pete Dye designed tracks is worth consideration.
PGA Tour maidens had a cracking record in this event prior to the format change and one of last year's winning duo, Cameron Smith, was winning on the PGA Tour for a first time, so if you fancy a pair of rookies to do well don't be put off. All three playoff protagonists in 2016, Stuard, Byeong-Hun An and Jamie Lovemark, and the man who finished fourth, Bobby Wyatt, were all looking to win on the PGA Tour for the first time and eight of the last 12 winners before it became a pairs event were breaking their PGA Tour ducks in this event.
Playing as a pair is far less stressful than playing on your own so it's a chance for those that struggle in-the-mix in individual events to shine.
Similar Events to Consider?
We don't have too many tournaments to compare to this one. There's the limited-field Franklin Templeton Shootout staged before Christmas each year and the World Cup of Golf but that's about it so form in those events might be worth bearing in mind and of course, Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup form will be worth considering too.
Stuard was the ninth winner in 11 years to be in front with a round to go in the old format, when he won two years ago, and last year's winners were in front after three rounds too.
Smith and Blixt were four clear through 54 holes but they were pushed all the way by Kisner and Brown, who shot 60 to tie them but if there's a pair four clear this year they'll take an awful lot of stopping because of the scoring switch.
In addition to Kisner and Brown, Tyrone Van Aswegen and Retief Goosen shot 60 in round two and two pairs fired 61 in round four playing four balls. In stark contrast, 66 was the best any team could muster in the better ball format and I can see why the organisers have switched. Making ground in round four won't be so easy this time around and I suspect we'll see an awful lot of change on Saturday.
Pete Dye specialists and major champions, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, are very obvious favourites. They missed the cut 12 months ago so they'll be keen to make amends but they make no appeal at a single-figure price.
This year's second favourites and last year's fifth-place pairing, Justin Thomas and Bud Cauley, fared brilliantly in the four ball rounds, shooting 64 and 61 but an opening 70 and a third round 74 cost them dear in the foursomes and Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer, who are currently trading as third best, were one of the pairings to shoot 66 in the four ball format, but 66 and 64 wasn't low enough when playing four balls.
The Masters champion, Patrick Reed returns to the fray alongside Patrick Cantlay, having finished tied for 14th 12 months ago and the new pairing of Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar, who both play Pet Dye tracks well, have to be respected too but this is too much of a lottery to go backing short-priced pairings.
I know we've only had one edition in this format so we can't draw too many conclusions but last year's winners were 120.0119/1 shots before the off and the beaten playoff protagonists were 80.079/1 chances. Outsiders fared well here before they changed the format so I'm taking it very easy before the off and I've just thrown a few pounds at Ben Crane and Alex Cejka, who both arguably should have won a Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Cejka/Crane @ an average of 260.0259/1
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.
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