News & Opinion

If opposites attract, dream teams await

The Zurich Classic is next up on the PGA Tour, and you no doubt had the calendar marked. Maybe not.

But you have to give the New Orleans-based tournament props for trying, abandoning the conventional stroke-play arrangement and going to a team format. As author/speaker John Maxwell has said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” Who doesn’t want to see the Zurich Classic grow, right?

As things stand, the event features a player from the PGA Tour priority rankings paired with a partner, who is either a PGA Tour member or a sponsor exemption. The teams play alternate shot in the first and third rounds, better ball in the second and fourth, and the winners split the $2 million-plus.

A number of the big draws will be missing this week, so maybe the format doesn’t resonate like it might. But what if things were truly different? What if there were more of a TMZ flavor to the pairings? What if you took more of a Hal Sutton approach to the pairings?

You remember the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup skipper. He decided to put Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together in the same pair, which was like throwing President Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell into the same Uber.

Tigerphil Mickelwoods went 0-2, losing to Colin Montgomerie-Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke-Lee Westwood. The bust set the tone for a European rout, but it sure was fun. Given the total disregard for politics, body language or common intuition, it’s an approach that – if you get the headliners to participate – truly might separate the Zurich Classic.

For instance, history be damned, Sutton might fuse Woods and Mickelson again. Why not? They played together last November and look what happened: a matchup made in purgatory. The monotonous pay-per-view TV even inspired Charles Barkley to declare, “This is some crappy golf.” Rest assured that Sir Charles knows something about crappy golf. And to think that it cost Turner Sports only $10 million in revenue.

Another spirited team might be Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez. The two got close at the 2015 WGC Match Play when the cigar-chomping Jimenez questioned a drop by Bradley. Bradley’s caddie, Steve "Pepsi" Hale, got involved, which drew a terse “shut up” from Jimenez. And you thought things went better with Coke.

With Hale’s contribution, the unpleasantries escalated into a face-to-face confrontation between the Spaniard and Bradley. Be honest: There’s nothing like in-your-face golf on a literal basis, and as Jimenez later explained, “It was about the attitude.”

Yes! Let’s bring more attitude to Louisiana.

And how about more color? They had some during the 2011 Zurich Classic, when volatile Rory Sabbatini and young Sean O’Hair opened up the French dictionary on each other in the second round. O’Hair’s caddie/father-in-law had to step in to keep blows from erupting. Reportedly, the players settled their differences on the phone a while later, but why not give them a chance to open old wounds. They are still playing, aren’t they?

Lots of other possibilities exist. What if you put Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth together? That could be deliciously awkward. Remember, Reed said he was “blindsided” in 2018 when Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk declined to pair Reed with Spieth, after the two had gone 2-1-1 in the previous Ryder Cup for the victorious Americans. Instead, Spieth was placed with close friend Justin Thomas.

Reed blamed Spieth, saying the issue was with “Jordan not wanting to play with me.” Meanwhile, Thomas indicated that parties were made aware of the strategy well ahead of time. Reed and Spieth didn’t talk it out until late January, when they were paired together for Round 3 at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Hey, here’s an idea: Furyk and Thomas could play with Reed and Spieth – all of them in the same group. Talk about a tempestuous tee time. Whoa, Nelly!

A Matt Kuchar-Sergio Garcia pairing seems intriguing. Those two had some chilly moments a few weeks ago at the WGC Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas. It started with the volatile Garcia missing a putt, then hastily missing a backhanded swipe from mere inches.

The problem was, Garcia made the swipe assuming that Kuchar was giving him the leftover. But Kuchar hadn’t had a chance to concede before the petulant putt was struck and – Garcia’s plea-deal negotiations notwithstanding – elected to keep the hole. He won the quarterfinal match, 2 up.

Word to the wise, however. If Garcia does play with Kuchar, he might want to get that 50-50 winnings split in writing before and they pose with the trophy. Just sayin’.

Brooks Koepka, the U.S. Open and PGA Championship belt holder, is in the Zurich Classic field, playing alongside younger brother Chase Koepka. That’s a good human-interest pairing, to be sure. But wouldn’t it be something if the elder Koepka were to share the card with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson? The two heavyweights allegedly had to be separated in the winning European team room on Sunday night of the Ryder Cup, a situation that was reported to have started with a confrontation on the flight over to Paris.

Presumably, it was the reason why Furyk did not pair Koepka and Johnson together for all of the foursomes and four-balls. Well, to heck with thatI

Let’s give these kids 12-ounce golf gloves, give ’em some room and see what happens. Instead of a traditional starter, let’s have Michael Buffer introduce them on the first tee. Let’s get ready to rumbllllllllllle!

How about doing something experimental with the team concept itself? J.B. Holmes and Ben Crane are known to be, shall we say, deliberate in terms of pace of play. Put them together, hope they make the cut and see if you can’t set a record: the first PGA Tour event to go to a Monday finish … for no particular reason whatsoever.

That’s to say nothing of the celebrity pro-am possibilities. Nancy Kerrigan playing with Tonya Harding; David Letterman paired with Jay Leno; Taylor Swift and Kanye West; Reggie Miller and Spike Lee; Stan Kroenke and literally anyone from St. Louis.

The Zurich Classic would grow. Make no mistake: It would grow.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD