4pts win Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman at 12/1 (General)
1.5pts e.w. Harold Varner and Branden Grace at 30/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Cameron Tringale and Roberto Castro at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Thomas Pieters and Tom Lewis at 55/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Maverick McNealy and Joseph Bramlett at 80/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
Four years ago, the PGA Tour broke the mould by turning the Zurich Classic of New Orleans into a team competition. It was a small step taken in an event which had been flagging, Brian Stuard's play-off defeat of Jamie Lovermark and Ben An in 2016 the final staw. That renewal had been reduced to 54 holes and finished on a Monday, and while those circumstances can't be controlled, the feeling was that something had to change.
In the time that has passed, despite the apparent success of this pairs event, not much else has. There's a handicap system which has helped turn the TOUR Championship into something less entertaining and less competitive, and there have been new events in Korea and Japan, but it would be fair to say experimentation hasn't stretched far beyond, which is a shame.
This event is fun, for those involved and those watching, and it sits in a good position in the calendar: two weeks after the Masters, a few before the PGA Championship, allowing the likes of Jon Rahm the opportunity to ease back into competition without any real sense of urgency. Perhaps that's why it's managed to attract the likes of Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Tony Finau and Collin Morikawa, all of whom should be playing team golf again in the Ryder Cup this September.
Rahm is here as defending champion alongside Ryan Palmer, the pair brought together by a bet between caddies. Cantlay and Schauffele, who gelled so well at the Presidents Cup, are similar players, with similar temperaments. Morikawa teams up with college rival Matthew Wolff, Finau with a fellow big-hitter in Cameron Champ, while Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd are old college roommates who remain close.
The message is that teams here have been formed in various ways, through coaches, sponsors, caddies, friendships, even pure chance, and it's difficult to read too much into any of them. Better is to focus on the fact that for all its supposed volatility, this event has been dominated by players who were in form on arrival. There are just 80 teams, many made up of struggling players, and the more I look, the shorter the list of potential winners appears to be.
In 2017, Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt were surprise champions in some ways, but Smith had been sixth a week earlier. The other outsiders in the mix were Kevin Tway and Kelly Kraft, but again the former arrived off a big finish at TPC San Antonio, in his case finishing third.
The surprise packages a year later were Brice Garnett and Chesson Hadley. Then again, Garnett had won a tournament just a month earlier, while Hadley was in the middle of a sequence of seven top-20 finishes, one of the best sustained runs of his PGA Tour career. We might not have known what was to come, but he'd been 18th, seventh and 20th in his previous three starts, and was in obviously good form.
And then in 2019, Matt Every and KH Lee rather stood out behind Rahm and Palmer, who beat Tommy Fleetwood and Sergio Garcia to the title. Lee had made his last seven cuts, including seventh place in the Honda Classic, and even a wild Every had bagged a couple of top-20s. Compared to some of the teams featuring in this year's renewal, they were positively humming coming in.
Others behind them, like Brian Gay and Rory Sabbatini (latter 10th at Harbour Town the week before this), and David Hearn and Seamus Power (sixth at Harbour Town), underline that focus should be on players who are in good form. That, of course, is fairly obvious, but it goes against any notion that this is some kind of lottery. I rather think it ought to be fairly predictable, and there are half as many potential winners as usual even if you do include Woody Austin and Rocco Mediate in that.
Whether or not Rahm has been putting in the hours having become a father during the week of the Masters, we'll perhaps find out, but with that doubt surrounding him the favourites can be taken on. So too can be Cantlay and Schauffele, the former having been poor lately, and the latter needing to bounce back from yet another Sunday disappointment at Augusta, where he had finally got within sight of Hideki Matsuyama and proceeded to take six at the 16th.
The form of Wolff, Champ and Bubba Watson also raises concerns and that leaves CAMERON SMITH and MARC LEISHMAN as the team I think they all have to beat.
Smith of course won this in 2017, teaming up with Blixt for a short-game masterclass and his first official PGA Tour win. Having since added a Sony Open, he returns a far superior player and one of the hottest on the PGA Tour, his tie for 10th at Augusta followed by ninth place at Harbour Town last week.
It might just be that Harbour Town is a good form guide, given that TPC Louisiana is also designed by Pete Dye. That's been the case in the past, such as when Billy Horschel won the old version of this event soon after a big finish in the Heritage, but also when the likes of Sabbatini and Power carried over their form when switching to the team event here.
Whatever the case, Smith is at the top of his game and will be raring to team up with Leishman again, the pair having been second in the 2018 World Cup for Australia, but kept apart at the following year's Presidents Cup as captain Ernie Els sought to spread out his home players at Royal Melbourne.
Smith and Leishman reunited at the QBE Shootout late last year, emphasising how keen they are to play together, and the latter arrives on the back of fifth place at Augusta for what's his debut in this event. The timing looks ideal, and their Dye ties are extensive, Leishman having won at River Highlands and Smith based at Sawgrass for so long.
Leishman has a nine-under 63 to his name at this course and I really like the fact that he and Smith have some foursomes experience. Every winner of this event has been first in foursomes scoring and it'll remain of particular importance since the format was tweaked to ensure that alternate shot takes place on Friday and Sunday, making the final round tougher and more pressure-packed.
This pair of affable Aussies are perfectly set for the challenge and shouldn't be far away.
In the hope that Harbour Town does prove a better guide than some will expect, HAROLD VARNER and BRANDEN GRACE are next on the list.
Like Garnett and Hadley, these two come with recent form courtesy of Varner's runner-up finish last week, his best yet on the PGA Tour, as well as winning form thanks to Grace's heroics in the Puerto Rico Open.
Quite how the partnership came about I'm not sure, but they played together in a couple of final rounds back in 2017 and were pictured chatting throughout both. Perhaps they became friends, or else there's some other reason behind their teaming up this week which we'll hopefully learn about when they go low on Thursday.
Grace comes with serious team credentials thanks to his Presidents Cup form, having been a talisman for the Internationals and so badly missed in that tight encounter in 2019. He's also got some sneaky form in this, playing well with Louis Oosthuizen on debut, and then finishing 32nd with Justin Harding in 2019. With just 39 teams making the cut that's nothing much to celebrate, but note they were second before a nightmare 80 in Sunday's foursomes.
Varner is a much stronger ball-striker than Harding, and he's also desperate to build on that performance at the Heritage, where Grace is a past champion, for reasons he explained on Sunday night.
"I want to play well at the Wells Fargo," he said. "That's my major. I know the PGA is coming, but that's an important place to me, so I want to play well there, and I need to start now building up to get there, so super excited."
With that event a couple of weeks away, expect no let-up from the popular 30-year-old whose relaxed demeanour might just be suited to playing with a fierce competitor like Grace.
Sam Burns is a local youngster with bags of ability and now gets to play with Horschel, a winner here with Scott Piercy in 2018 as well as having collected his first solo title in the event. They make some appeal, but Burns might just feel the heat here and chatty Horschel could be a less than ideal partner, despite his recent heroics in the Match Play.
Instead, I'm really drawn to THOMAS PIETERS and TOM LEWIS, two enormous talents who might find this stock par 72 to their liking.
First and foremost, both are playing well. Pieters hasn't finished worse than 15th across his last four starts, two of them coming on the PGA Tour, while Lewis has now made four cuts in a row and looked in decent nick when 25th last week, at a course where he can't put his driving to use like he can here.
Lewis has some team golf experience as a Walker Cup winner who was also second in an experimental European Tour pairs event, but it's that of Pieters which is particularly encouraging. Five years ago he was a sensational Ryder Cup debutant, and two years after that he combined with Thomas Detry to win the World Cup for Belgium, holding off that strong Australian team on their turf.
It's a shame we've not seen more of him in these events and I really would be looking to get him into my Ryder Cup side were I European captain Padraig Harrington. Perhaps making a statement here would go some way towards achieving that goal and these two outstanding ball-strikers should make no end of birdies during the first and third rounds.
If they do sing during the foursomes, they have the potential to do a lot of damage in this format and it's notable how well Europeans have done in this tournament, Fleetwood going close with both Garcia and Chris Paisley, Blixt and Rahm both winning, Power bagging a couple of top-10s and an all-Scottish team taking seventh.
Sticking with generally excellent form, CAMERON TRINGALE has been one of the most consistent performers this season and can contend again with college friend ROBERTO CASTRO for company.
These two were fifth here in 2019, making a mess of the final hole when put up on these pages at 150/1, which sadly ate into the place money. Still, it was an excellent effort and what's notable is that Tringale was their form player at the time — yet he ranked outside the world's top 500.
Two years on, he's since climbed inside the top 90 and is playing the best golf of his career, while Castro, whose own career has been hit by injury problems, has at least shown better signs since returning from his latest absence, finishing 39th and 18th in his two most recent starts.
Castro is particularly accurate from the tee and Tringale's iron play can be deadly, as we saw when he led the field, ahead of Morikawa, at Riviera. The only issue he's had is with producing his best golf on Sundays, and perhaps having a partner with him will help if they do get into the mix.
"Zurich Classic is one of my favourite events of the year," Tringale said when seventh on his own in 2015. "The golf course suits my game (and) it is so fun to stay downtown in the city of New Orleans." With an improving Castro no doubt excited at the opportunity to partner his friend, whose form is excellent, they look a decent each-way investment.
Finally, MAVERICK MCNEALY and JOSEPH BRAMLETT look like a really good blend, with McNealy powerful and deadly on the greens whereas Bramlett is really accurate.
Bramlett was 13th two starts back and then solid in Texas, and he's made five cuts in six starts now. McNealy has been far less consistent, but he burst through the field to finish fourth in the Heritage last week, and I'm convinced Louisiana should be a much better fit for him.
The Californian explained there why he'd been particularly keen to find his game, saying: "(I'm) playing the Zurich Classic next week with my best friend out here, Joseph Bramlett. We're actually roommates.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't preparing a little extra hard for this couple-week stretch, and I think that helped me a lot because I'm playing for more than myself next week, and Joseph and I can't wait to get going."
They're not the only close friends taking part here, but few have a more complete set of skills and at 80/1 they complete the staking plan.
Posted at 1230 BST on 20/04/21
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