The Zurich Classic of New Orleans has featured two first-time PGA Tour winners in as many recent years, with TPC Louisiana in Avondale serving as a proving ground of sorts for some of golf's rising talent.
One of the biggest stars in this week's field is Jason Dufner, who fought through a playoff here in 2012 to get his maiden win on tour. Dufner parlayed that performance into a fantastic season overall that saw him win again less than a month later, qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team and ultimately prepare him for his triumph at the 2013 PGA Championship.
Defending champion Billy Horschel confirmed his status as one of the game's premier young guns by coming out on top last year, holing a dramatic putt to win by one stroke on the 18th green:
Horschel then finished tied for fourth at the 2013 U.S. Open in his major debut, but has struggled since. The putter that got him his breakthrough win has betrayed him in the 2013-14 campaign, as he ranks 117th on tour in total putting.
Perhaps this venue will bring back some magic on the greens for Horschel, and it's possible that another breakthrough champion could emerge come Sunday. Below is a closer look at the basic event information, along with analysis of the top groups to watch for the first two rounds of action.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com.
When: Thursday, April 24 through Sunday, April 27
Where: TPC Louisiana in Avondale, La.
Tee Times: For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit PGATour.com.
Purse: $6,800,000; Winner's Share: $1,224,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
|Thursday, April 24||3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Friday, April 25||3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Saturday, April 26||1-2:30 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, CBS|
|Sunday, April 27||1-2:30 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, CBS|
Analyzing Marquee Groups
Patrick Reed, Billy Horschel and Rickie Fowler
One of the clear golfers to watch not only this week but going forward is Patrick Reed, a self-proclaimed top-five player in the world. The brash 23-year-old does have three PGA Tour wins already—more than the combined two of his playing competitors—but he was knocked down a peg in his Masters debut.
The former Augusta State standout was unable to make the weekend cut at Augusta National, suggesting he's perhaps a bit too confident for his own good. Sports on Earth's Dave Kindred provided his take on the situation:
Patrick Reed? Self-proclaimed 1 of world's top 5 golfers? MC at Masters, 73-79, bogeyed 13 of his last 21 holes.#Recalculating— Dave Kindred (@DaveKindred) April 17, 2014
Though Reed was burned in his first major and finished tied for 48th at the RBC Heritage, he has a strong enough all-around game to contend in what is one of the weakest fields—relatively speaking—the PGA Tour has had this season. If he doesn't finish in the top five in this event, it would be a disappointment.
Horschel's situation has been pretty well covered. This could be his week to make a big improvement to his 61st-place standing in the FedEx Cup points race if he can just get that elusive flat iron functioning properly.
The last time we saw Rickie Fowler, he was just matching his best finish in a major with a tie for fifth at the Masters. Still with just one win on his resume, there is nevertheless tangible progress being made by the well-dressed young American.
Just because he hasn't quite played to his potential doesn't mean that Fowler is intimidated by more experienced peers, per Golf Digest's Mike O'Malley:
Rickie Fowler, on the strong results by young players on tour: "We're here to play...We don't want to let the older guys get too many wins."— Mike O'Malley (@GD_MikeO) April 13, 2014
The same can be said for Reed and Horschel, who's just 27. Both play the game with a visible passion.
Fowler is cooler and more composed in his countenance, and it's translated to two top-six finishes in his past two starts. He's as due as any of the game's younger, more talented players to find the winner's circle again. Unless he shows substantial improvement in his 185th ranking in strokes gained putting, though, Fowler will continue to have middling, inconsistent results.
Justin Rose, Ernie Els and David Toms
The reigning U.S. Open champion in Justin Rose is beginning to round into form as he prepares to defend his title at the season's second major. A top 10 at the Valspar Championship and a joint 14th effort at Augusta suggest Rose—the highest-ranked player in the field this week at No. 11—is bound to contend at TPC Louisiana.
A post by Ernie Els on his official website described what went wrong for him at the RBC Heritage last week, where he managed just a tie for 64th:
In last week’s RBC Heritage, the iconic Harbour Town Golf Links was the challenging, all-round test that it always is. That was especially true on Friday when we had strong winds and driving rain – usually you have to play the British Open to be lucky enough to get treated to that sort of weather! Anyway, having played quite nicely in the first round, that little stretch of holes in the worst of the conditions on Friday kind of knocked me back a few steps. Despite returning early on Saturday morning and shooting a decent back nine, we never really got it properly back on track.
The South African superstar has just one top 10 in 10 starts this season, and really has not played well since his strong effort at the WGC-Match Play Championship in February.
At some point Els has to rediscover his game, because the four-time major winner is just too talented to carry on this way. He did lose in the 2012 Zurich Classic playoff to Dufner, so there's some success to draw from.
David Toms won this tournament in 2001, but it was not at this venue. However, he attended college at LSU and lives in Shreveport, so this is a home event for him. The galleries should be cheering on Toms, who could use some friendly and familiar territory to get back on track after some difficulties as of late.
As good of a putter as he usually is, it's rather shocking that Toms is second in driving accuracy and 17th in greens in regulation percentage this season and hasn't gotten more out of his great game from tee to green. Look for Toms as a sleeper to be in the hunt this week if his characteristically strong putter behaves.
Matt Every, Keegan Bradley and Charles Howell III
Which major champion will fare best at the Zurich Classic?
The Masters proved to be a bit too big of a stage for Every to thrive, yet in his other most recent five starts, he's not finished outside the top 25. With that type of steadiness on the regular PGA Tour circuit, don't be surprised if Every is near the top of the leaderboard again.
A runner-up finish to Every at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill saw Keegan Bradley take that momentum to the Shell Houston Open when he shot an opening-round 66. But since then, Bradley has not broken 70 and was among the big names not to play Masters weekend.
It's about time for Bradley to put his hyper-competitive game face on and right the ship. Ranking just 60th in ball striking will make matters difficult, though.
Few players were hotter than Charles Howell to begin 2013-14, as he registered five top 10s by the beginning of February. Jason Sobel of Golf Channel felt at the time that Howell could go on a tear in his prime, reminiscent to last week's winner in Matt Kuchar:
Charles Howell III with five top-10s already this season. Can totally see him having a second half to his career that's ... Matt Kuchar-ish.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) February 3, 2014
Since then, things haven't gone so well, but there aren't many holes in Howell's game, and he's longer than his slight frame might suggest. Although he's only won twice in his PGA Tour career, Howell is always a threat to challenge for the trophy thanks to his natural ability. You might be surprised to find that he's 25th on the career money list.
The trend in the past two years has seen first-time winners, but the best golfers should rise to the occasion based on the general lack of star power in this year's Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Reed and Horschel are in need of a strong outing, and could benefit by feeding off Fowler's positive direction in the first 36 holes.
Since Rose is the highest ranked player teeing it up, he has to be considered a big favorite, and his playing competitors in Els and Toms are due to shine given their respective pedigrees. Combine those two with the fire Bradley brings to the links, and there should be plenty of excitement to be had in Louisiana.