By Dan Reardon
Sometimes reinventing the wheel actually does work. After nearly 70 years of a traditional stroke-play, full-field PGA TOUR event in New Orleans, the Zurich Classic decided a year ago to revitalize the tournament with a fresh approach.
The Tour stop became a team event with a variation of the popular Ryder Cup format. Eighty players from the priority rankings are seeded into the field, and those players are allowed to choose another PGA TOUR member or sponsor exemption for the four days.
The first and third rounds are played as “four-ball” (better ball), and the second and fourth rounds are played as “Foursomes” (alternate shot). Unlike the Ryder Cup, this is a stroke-play event, as opposed to matches, and there is a 36-hole cut.
In its debut a year ago, the new format created fireworks over the closing holes with Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith playing “can you top this” against Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown, with Blixt/Smith emerging as the winner in sudden death.
This year’s edition is top-heavy with big names that include all four current major champions, Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, with a side order of John Daly and Rory Sabbatini. For Koepka it represents a return to competition from a long injury hiatus.
CBS Sports golf analyst Frank Nobilo, a 15-time winner as a professional, is no stranger to team play with three President Cup appearances on his resume, as well as the Dunhill Cup. He looks at the tournament’s team format and how that changes the game.
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With all the major winners in the field this year, the new format appears to be a success. Do you think the reason is the scoring formats or the ability to team with a partner they choose?
I thought it was a very bold move a year ago, when they said they were going to have a team event, and there was a lot of speculation. But with the team format, you can have a lot of fun. It’s pick your partner and away you go. So it is a tremendous changeup, and you can’t dispute the fact you still get FedExCup points and the win. Look what it did for Cameron Smith last year. It checks a lot of boxes, and now it’s sneaky good.
It is easy to look at the foursome and four-ball and think Ryder Cup, but this isn’t a match-play event. It is stroke play. How is that different?
You have to have one eye open. In a match-play situation, you can get to a point on a hole where you get one more chance at it. So someone takes a chance at it with a slash with a driver or heroic second shot over water, and they don’t really worry about if it doesn’t come off. In four-ball/better ball you still have to keep a guy in the hole in the stroke-play format.
The event that is closest to this is the Dunhill Cup, which is actually medal/match play. You could still be three ahead with three to play, but you still have to play it out. So this adds that lovely wrinkle to it that it is never over.
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In alternate shot, is the most important thing partner matching?
Matching up game is a lot more important. I know we often look at personalities. You’d rather have a good partner than necessarily your best mate. You can choose a partner and have some fun. But there are some statistical groups who analyze things differently. You take Jon Rahm and Wesley Bryant. They are polar opposites statistically; length and tee to green as opposed to short-game magic. I am really curious as to how that game is going to play, because that is either a Hollywood team, or it is really terrible. Opposites can certainly attract in this format.
What about other groups that you like this week?
I thought Rose and Stenson last year would be good, because Rose had played well here. In the past, [they] were just a natural fit. They played Ryder Cup together. They both used to live at Lake Nona. And they missed the cut. That was a team that naturally looked strong, but they didn’t deliver. Spieth and Ryan Palmer were top five last year. Obviously, Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay. Reed is in his first start since Augusta, and Cantlay is just continuing to improve and is sneaky good.
I am curious about a couple of other groups. Brooks Koepka. Is he really 100%? You’re also looking at potential. Is Ryan Ruffles, who is a year older now, getting closer? And, of course, Justin Thomas, who will turn 25 on Sunday, [is] playing with his good friend Bud Cauley.
I really like the makeup of the field, and you are going to have a good leaderboard the first day and on Sunday as well.
If Frank Nobilo was playing in this event in his prime, who would he have asked to be his partner?
Ernie Els probably. We played a lot of golf together when we were a little younger. He had a little more power than I did. Our games used to gel up together. I was probably better in the middle-iron department. We had the same sort of decrepit form of humor but competitors. And the one thing we didn’t do when we played together is we didn’t say “Sorry.” You just gave it your best shot, and that’s it, and then laugh about it afterwards. It was a little more old school, but that’s all you can do.
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.