NEW ORLEANS — The first round of the Zurich Classic marked a dramatic break from tradition on the PGA Tour, and thank goodness. Instead of just another boring 72-hole stroke play event we were treated to team play for the first time on Tour since the Walt Disney World National Team Championship in 1981. Even juicier was that, rather than the best-ball format that will be used on Friday and Sunday, the first round (as will the third) featured the quirky, uncomfortable and rarely used alternate-shot format, which demands both teamwork and empathy. Noting how bad it feels to let down your partner, Geoff Ogilvy called alternate shot “a four-hour guilt-trip.” No wonder it hasn’t made an appearance on Tour since the 1934 Pinehurst Pro-Pro.
The capricious nature of alternate-shot was evident at the top of the leader board: Ryan Ruffels had never in his short life tried it until a nine-hole practice round with his partner Kyle Stanley on Tuesday of this week. Now they are tied for the lead with Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer after a six-under 66, one stroke better than K.J. Choi-Charlie Wi, Jonas Blixt-Cameron Smith, Charley Hoffman-Nick Watney and Ben squared, Mssrs. Crane and Martin.
Ruffels turned pro in January 2016 as a 17 year-old prodigy who was often compared to his countryman Jason Day, not least because his swing is equally majestic and they favor a similarly hyper-aggressive style. Two years ago Stanley was paired with Ruffels at the Australian Masters and was wowed by his game and maturity. But a rough first year in the big leagues has left Ruffels toiling on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. It took a sponsor’s exemption to get him into the Zurich field, and desperation by Stanley for them to partner up. They share a management company so Stanley, an iconoclastic lone wolf, was nudged by his people to invite Ruffels to join him. Did Stanley have a Plan B if the kid said no?
“No, not really.”
This shotgun marriage was atypical in a field that is defined by relationships. Among the 80 teams are those who have enjoyed Ryder Cup success (Justin Rose/Henrik Stenson), Presidents Cup success (Louis Oosthuizen/Branden Grace), sprang from the same loins (Brooks & Chase Koepka), have the same mental coach (Kevin Streelman/Russell Knox), were roommates at a long-ago European tour Q school (Daniel Berger/Thomas Pieters), and share alma maters (too many to list, but LSU boys John Peterson and Andrew Loupe are the local favorites.) Jordan Spieth is here only because his participation in the Zurich was the stakes in a match he lost to Ryan Palmer’s caddie James Edmondson, a renowned shark who played college golf at Houston. The team spirit was on display across TPC Louisiana. Keegan Bradely and Brendan Steele both wore all-gray ensembles with black hats, Blixt and Smith were visions in red and white and Spieth and Palmer went with gray and blue. Oosthuizen and Grace matched perfectly in white pants and baby-blue shirts. “It looks good, right?” King Louis asked, desperately seeking validation. “We’re here as a team so we want to look that way.”
So does that mean Billy Horschel will be pressing octopi on his partner Matt Every as the tournament wears on?
“No way,” Horschel said. “That is so…well, I can’t say the word.”
“Clown stuff,” said Jason Dufner, helpfully. He has been mentoring his partner Patton Kizzire ever since he was an undergrad at Auburn, Duf’s beloved alma mater. But clearly they won’t be breaking out any War Eagle attire in the coming rounds.
Of more pressing concern was how each team mixed and matched their golf ball. Jason Day plays a high-spin Nike and, given the occasionally breezy conditions, felt it was prudent to play all 18 holes with Rickie Fowler’s lower-spinning Titleist. “For him to change to my ball,” said Day,”would have been a pretty drastic move, especially trying to keep it down.”
Other teams swapped out their balls on every hole; whichever player was hitting the tee shot would use his own ball and their partner would have to adjust to it on the ensuing shot. Thus Russell Knox employed his Srixon and Kevin Streelman his Titleist. “It wasn’t as great as my Srixon golf ball,” Knox said, pumping a fist at the plug for his sponsor,”but you can’t blame that [for a 73].” Luke Donald plays a Pro V1x while his partner Jamie Lovemark uses a higher-spinning Pro V1, and Donald noted that his playing partner felt his wedge game was off “by a few yards” because of the difference.
Another interesting bit of strategy was choosing which player would tee off on the odd holes and which would take the evens. Brooks Koepka felt his towering irons would be more of an asset on the odd-numbered holes, which featured three brawny par-3s. Since they began on the back nine, that meant his baby brother had to hit the opening tee shot in his PGA Tour debut. Chase, a 23 year-old who has been toiling on the Challenge tour in Europe, smoked a good one, and the Koepka bros went on to shoot 69. “I don’t know if people thought I was bringing some random dude,” said Brooks,”but he’s a really good player.”
The TPC Louisiana is a user-friendly track and Thursday offered benign conditions, so the primary resistance to scoring was the challenge of the format. “It’s hard to get into a rhythm,” said Berger. “I feel like I only hit three mid-irons all day.”
Knox missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 6th hole. “My next putt of more than two feet was not until the 13th,” he said. But hardest of all for these rugged individualist was the feeling of letting down their teammate. “If you mess up for yourself, no big deal,” said Knox. “You don’t want to mess up for your partner. It’s hard to have that stress.”
Adds J.J. Henry, who paired with Tom Hoge, “We know we’re both trying our hardest on every shot so I said before the round not to apologize for anything out there. Then on the 2nd hole I missed a four-footer and the first thing I did was say, Sorry pards. It’s just a nerve-wracking deal.”
Friday’s best-ball format is less taxing and promises more fireworks. The players are fired-up about what lies ahead in for a tournament that has already been an unqualified success. “I’ve been out here for 17 years and it’s nice to have something new and exciting,” says Henry. “This thing just feels different. Everyone is enjoying the challenge. Even more than that, they’re having fun. How many PGA Tour events can you describe as fun?”