Well, if you think golf is a crapshoot usually, welcome to the ULTIMATE crapshoot week: the revamped Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a new team format where the top-80 players who chose to compete got to pick their partner. It's added a ton of spice to the event but also made a bit of a scramble for fantasy players. Here's our stats preview.
Step No. 1: See If Your League Includes New Orleans
The latest PGA Tour iOS app update wasn't to fix a bug or incorporate more stats and biographical information into its interface. Rather, it was for a much simpler purpose: the app wasn't built for a team event and needed some code updates to handle the unique leaderboard for this week.
Let that be motivation for you to check your league and see if this event is even included and, if so, what format it's using. Some leagues are skipping this week while others, like my one-and-done league, for example, includes Zurich but has a system where you only need to select one player. Clearly then, pick the lower ranked player (i.e. Chase Koepka in the Brooks Koepka-Chase Koepka team), so you can use the higher ranked player another week or re-use a player that you've already chosen for a previous event. So take five minutes and check your rules and regulations for this week.
Step No. 2: Understand the Format
The format is as follows: Thursday and Saturday will be alternate shot, Friday and Sunday will be best ball. Eighty teams will tee it up (160 players), with only the top 35 and ties making the cut. That leads to this important disclaimer: if you tend to pick players because they'll give you a solid T35-T45 finish, be careful. If you go that route this week take a team like Jason Dufner and Patton Kizzire that on paper isn't one of the sexy picks to win but you might otherwise pick because they'd be a nice mid-pack finisher just remember that only the top 35 and ties are making the cut.
Step No. 3: Do Stats Even Matter?
I know that sounds like an odd question for a guy paid to write a stats column but consider this: many players left Austin Country Club site of the WGC-Dell Match Play saying the same thing: Awesome venue for THIS event, but we couldn't play a stroke play event here because we'd have to play conservatively because the Pete Dye layout can be very diabolical. Instead, because it's match play, we see hole outs, aggressive play, tons of birdies, and some blow ups too. The player changes their strategy, and the golf adjusts accordingly.
Now TPC Louisiana isn't Austin Country Club (although it shares the same architect), and this event is stroke play, not match play, but I wonder if we're going to see similar this week where team dynamics and not venue-specific stats will win out. How you ham and egg it and work together as a team, a la Ryder and Presidents Cups could matter most.
A great example of this is with the teams of J.B. Holmes-Bubba Watson and Jason Day-Rickie Fowler. Watson and Holmes are two bombers and have played a ton of Ryder and Presidents Cup matches together. Watson and Holmes rank 76th and 202nd in driving accuracy respectively and 151st and 187th in greens in regulation, respectively. If their games are off next week, will they be frustrated at other, or able to quickly right the ship? Watson especially hasn't been playing well lately and looked frustrated at times in China. Will that be a factor?
Conversely, Day is a bomber and Fowler a more accurate player (Fowler is 44th and 36th in those categories, Day 175th and 179th) and should seem better suited to complement each other, especially in best ball. So as you evaluate your picks for this week, keep in mind that team dynamics may be more important than who can maneuver it around TPC Louisiana.
Also watch out for the teams seemingly put together at random. While only the players that got in via the alternate list were put together by the Tour (Tad Ridings-Xander Schauffele and Miguel Angel Carballo-Nicholas Lindheim so far), if you can't easily find a connection (most guys are playing with close friends, teammates [either college or Ryder/Presidents Cup], same sponsor, neighbors/from the same country, etc), I'd be very suspicious of how they'll play together come Thursday. The one that has people talking on social media is Bryson DeChambeau-Rory Sabbatini, but there are others out there that fall into the same category.
Step No. 4: Make Your Picks
This field is loaded, with seven of the top 10 in the world participating. So now it's time to pick. Here's who I like:
Winners: Justin Thomas/Bud Cauley. While Thomas hasn't played great lately (and hasn't quite found the form from his two Hawaiian victories), he went on #SB2K17, is nice and relaxed, came home, and did this on his home course in the pro-am for his AJGA event.
Cauley, meanwhile, has consecutive top-10s in Hilton Head and San Antonio, and while he was unable to stay in contention at Valero after being at the top through 36 holes but still ranked sixth in strokes gained off the tee, 16th in approach to the green and 14th in putting for the week. That's got the potential for a winning combination, especially with Thomas being able to help Cauley over the finish line when the pressure starts to mount while in contention come Sunday.
Other stout teams
Jordan Spieth/Ryan Palmer: The team founded on a lost bet has a chance to win for this reason: these two guys are really, really solid ball strikers. Tag in Spieth's putting and you've got a potent combination. Spieth ranks first in strokes gained approach to the green, 29th in putting, 31st from 15 to 20 feet and 13th from 20-25 feet while Palmer is 15th in strokes gained off the tee, seventh in approach to the green and 50th in greens hit.
Justin Rose/Henrik Stenson: Rose obviously had the stout Masters, finishing second to Sergio while ranking third in greens hit, first in birdies and had just three three-putts for the week. Stenson meanwhile has had a woeful season, with just one made cut in the US and missed cuts in his last three starts, but playing with a friend could bring good vibes for the Olympic silver medal winner and reigning Open Champion. And, going back to Step #3, that's the thing about team play just because Stenson isn't playing well doesn't mean Rose-Stenson is a bad pick.
Hideki Matsuyama/Hideto Tanihara: Everyone knows what Matsuyama has done and Tanihara is the man that ousted Spieth at the Match Play in Austin and did it in style. But don't overlook his play on the PGA Tour in 2017 as he's had a pretty impressive run, going T27-T32-4-missed cut (at The Masters)-T39. He's 60th in strokes gained approach to the green and 21st in around the green for the season. With how long and accurate Matsuyama is when he's on, Tanihara is a nice player to partner with. His all-around game is pretty solid plus he's beaten a big name in a stressful spot, and knowing you're playing with one of the best should help you feel comfortable if the weekend pressure ever becomes too stressful.
Branden Grace/Louis Oosthuizen: Plain and simple, this team knows how to make it work in these formats. They went 4-0 at the 2015 Presidents Cup and were one of the main reasons the International team made the final day suspenseful for the first time since the 2003 edition in South Africa that ended in a tie. No wonder the local New Orleans paper was eager to write about this team when they committed. More importantly to this week, Grace is on form, having gone T27-T11-T10 in his last three starts. At Valero he ranked first in strokes gained off the tee, 19th in approach to the green and tenth in around the green. Oosthuizen finished third in Phoenix, T21 at Honda, T28 at Bay Hill and T41 in his most recent start on the PGA Tour at Augusta. Stats wise he ranks 18th in strokes gained off the tee for the season, along with being 33rd in around the green and 44th in greens in regulation. Look for their reuniting to kindle those good vibes.
The early week weather forecast is nice mid-80s, sunny and a tad breezy, before a thunderstorm chance moves in over the weekend, especially on Sunday.