By Dan Reardon
Sometimes the math doesn’t work out. Sometimes you write the equation and plug in the number,s but you don’t get the answer you anticipated. That’s what happened in New Orleans at the Zurich Classic.
The second-year team format, and the days switching between Foursome and Fourball attracted one of the best “name” fields in recent tournament history. All four current major winners were on the roster. U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka was back in action for the first time since a prolonged injury hiatus. PGA champion Justin Thomas paired with Bud Cauley. Open champion Jordan Spieth was out for the first time following his brilliant Sunday at the Masters, with Ryan Palmer as his partner for the second straight year. And new Masters champion, Patrick Reed, was in the field with emerging star Patrick Cantlay by his side.
A total of 10 of the top 15 players in the World Golf rankings were on hand trying to match the overtime fireworks when Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith went extra hole to best Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown in 2017. At least that was the plan.
Team golf can be impressive when both players are on form and cranking out maximum horsepower. When one is a little off, keeping pace is a little more challenging. But when both cylinders aren’t firing, the group will likely get blacked flagged for the weekend. That’s what happened to Spieth, Thomas, Koepka and last year’s winners Blixt/Smith.
Friday’s first rotation of foursomes (alternate shot) exposed the teams with weak links. The scoring average was 73.83, nearly two strokes over par for the field. Not one team had a clean, bogey-free card in round 2.
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Kisner and Brown were poised to rebound from their loss a year earlier, sitting second at the halfway point. But in Saturday’s Better Ball, three back-nine bogeys, a cardinal sin in that format, exposed that their team was leaking oil rather than humming along.
While Kisner/Brown were hanging onto their lead at the start of the day on Sunday, Billy Horschel and Scott Piercy were cycling up with one of three rounds of 61 on Saturday, leaving them three off the pace. Piercy, a three-time winner in his career, knew who to saddle up in round three. “I think Billy, when he gets going, he stripes it. Like on 9 he hit it to a foot. Kind of a daunting flag. When he gets that little draw going, you ride his back until he gets tired. Then I had to bring to home for him a little bit.”
The chemistry surfaced immediately on Sunday, when Piercy hit approaches inside 10 feet on the opening holes and Horschel, a streak putter, converted both for birdies to get to -20 and tie the lead.
Perhaps the biggest element in that team was Horschel’s history at TPC of Louisiana. In 2013 Horschel made a dramatic 23-foot birdie at the 72nd hole to post his first win on the PGA Tour. Piercy knew a course that was less comfortable for him was a mental fix for his partner, who had struggled early in the year. Horschel saw in the fit an even better connection. “Our games match up very well. We are really good ball-strikers and we think the same way. We work with the same stats guy. I don’t have to worry about him making a bad decision or a stupid decision out there because we sort of are in the same mode of the way we’re thinking about how to get around the golf course,” Horschel said.
“And Scott is not a bad putter. He just needed to see a couple putts go in. He rolled the ball well the last couple days. I’ve been rolling the balls well for, you know, [the] last few weeks, and it’s nice to feel confident when I get over a putter or over the ball and feel like I can make it.”
Plus, the duo had the game in front of them, without the need to check the leaderboard, being paired with Jason Dufner and Pat Perez. “I told my caddie on 13 the group we got to beat is the group that we’re playing with,” Horschel said. “I felt like out of the teams I was worried about, Dufner and Perez were the next one. Both really great ball-strikers. Perez is a solid putter; Dufner can be a little streaky. He putted great today. Really it was nice to be able to play with the guys that you knew it was going to — one of us was going to win.”
They started the incoming nine in the same fashion as the start, with back-to-back birdies, flipping the script with Horschel hitting the close approaches and Piercy cashing in. At -22, they secured the lead and played level par the rest of the way, making Dufner/Perez come and get them. Dufner put his second at the par 5 18th in the greenside bunker, and Perez left him 14 feet for the tying birdie, which slipped right of the hole.
With FedExCup rankings of 100 and 70 at the start of the week, Horschel and Piercy were not the names talked about at the start of the week. But when team golf works the way you hope, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
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.