Stats for success: A look at the 2018 Zurich Classic

The Zurich Classic of New Orleans has become one of the more enjoyable events on Tour thanks to the unique format and atmosphere. The field consists of 80 two-player teams that each play alternate shot and best ball for two rounds. It’s the only official team event on the PGA Tour, and it’s interesting to evaluate why certain pairings of players work well. Digging into why, I first looked at the course and then 2017 to spot trends of those who succeeded.

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Course:

  • TPC Louisiana is a par 72 measuring 7,341 yards designed by Pete Dye

  • All four par 3s are over 200 yards

  • All four par 5s are over 540 yards

  • Four of the ten par 4s are over 475 yards

2017 Results:

  • Playoff at -27 between the teams of Brown/Kisner and Blixt/Smith

  • There was more variance in scoring in alternate shot than in best ball

  • Only four teams broke 140 for their two alternate shot rounds with Blixt/Smith leading the way at 135. That score was almost nine shots better than the field average

  • The low best ball score of 124 was turned in by Brown/Kisner and Kraft/Tway. That score was less than seven shots better than average.

Keys to Succeed:

  • Long approach shots

  • There is a potential for 12 approach shots from over 175 yards per round. All of the par 3s and par 5s require shots of 200 yards or more for most teams

  • Scrambling

  • The lengthy approach shots lead to missed greens and an importance on short game in both formats

  • In alternate shot, teams will need to stay steady by grinding out pars when greens are missed

  • In the best ball portion, a player who can save par after a miscue can often free up his partner to take a free run at birdie. This is something that is often overlooked

  • Putting, especially inside five feet

  • To keep the momentum going in a team event where scoring is low, players will need to be rock solid on the greens, especially inside five feet. One or two mishaps from that distance can really deflate a team

  • Teamwork

  • Players who have paired together in previous events or even play regularly together will have chemistry, which will provide a slight edge

Now let’s take a look at the top four teams from last year and how they handled some of these keys:

2017 Winners: Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith

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Statistical View:

Smith

  • Gained strokes around the green in every event in 2017 prior to the Zurich

  • Across all prior 2017 events, he was more than 2 feet better than average on approaches beyond 200 yards

Blixt

  • During the three starts prior, he was more than 2 feet better than average on approaches beyond 200 yards

  • During that same timeframe, he gained over 15 strokes putting

Team Aspect:

Blixt and Smith are very comfortable playing with each other. They both reside in the Jacksonville, Florida area and became good friends because Cameron Smith’s caddie was living with Jonas Blixt. They paired well together because they were both solid long iron players with excellent short games. Amazingly enough, they played 72 holes in difficult conditions without recording a bogey! Many times during best ball, we saw Blixt scramble for par, which allowed Smith to have a free run at birdie and vice versa.

2017 Runner Ups: Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown

Statistical View:

Kisner

  • In six events prior to the Zurich, he was 11 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards and 2 feet closer from 175 to 200 yards

  • Came in hot with three straight top 11s in non-major events where he gained 13 strokes putting, six shots on approach and five shots around the green

  • Very solid putting inside five feet, gaining strokes from that distance in 10 of 12 prior events

Brown

  • He may not have had great tournament results coming into last year’s event, but he was playing well in certain parts of his game that were needed for this event:

  • In his seven events prior to the Zurich, he was 5 feet better than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards and above average from 175 to 200 yards

  • Gained strokes putting in seven out of ten events coming into Zurich and gained strokes inside 5 feet in eight of those ten events

Team Aspect:

Kisner and Brown are both South Carolina natives and have competed against since their days in junior golf. They are very close friends and play a lot of golf together. The familiarity with each other’s game made this team a no brainer to put together.

3rd place: Kelly Kraft and Kevin Tway

Statistical View:

Kelly Kraft

  • Gained strokes putting in six of eight events coming into the Zurich

  • During that timeframe, he was also 4 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

Kevin Tway

  • Came in hot finishing third the week before at the Valero Texas Open, where he gained five shots on approach, two shots around the green and four strokes putting

  • In his three events prior to the Zurich, he was 7 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards and 4 feet closer from 175 to 200 yards

Team Aspect:

Kelly and Kevin are best friends on and off of the golf course. They have battled against each other dating back to junior tournaments. This was another natural choice for a team as they know each other’s games in and out.

4th place: Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer

Statistical View:

Spieth

  • In six of his seven events prior to the Zurich, he gained strokes on approach and putting

  • During those events, he was 5 feet closer than average on approaches from 175 to 200 yards and 2 feet closer from beyond 200 yards

  • Gained strokes putting inside 5 feet for five consecutive events prior to the Zurich

Palmer

  • In each of his six events prior to the Zurich, he gained strokes off the tee and on approach

  • During those starts, he was 6 feet better than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards and 2 feet better from 175 to 200 yards

Team Aspect:

Spieth and Palmer were another natural pairing. They have played a lot of practice rounds together and plenty of casual rounds of golf together back in their home state of Texas. The team was actually finalized when Ryan Palmer’s caddie won a bet against Spieth during a round at Trinity Forest, which is the course that will be hosting the Byron Nelson for the first time later this year.

Teams to Watch in 2018:

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Studs: Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose

Statistical View:

Stenson:

  • Over the last 12 months, he was 6 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • Very solid inside 5 feet, gaining strokes in each of his last seven events from that distance

Rose:

  • Over his last nine events, he was 6 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards. He was above average in each of those events.

  • In his last three events, he has gained over 11 strokes on the green

  • Gained strokes around the green in eight of his last ten events

  • Won this event in 2015 when it was a standard PGA Tour event

Team Aspect:

Stenson and Rose make up one of the more dominating Ryder Cup duos. They are 4-2 in the Ryder Cup, with both of their losses coming to the team of Spieth and Reed in 2016. Only one of their four victories went beyond the 16th hole. When paired together in the 2014 Ryder Cup, they set a record by making birdie on an astonishing 12 out of 16 holes in best ball, including ten in a row!

Underrated: Jon Rahm and Wesley Bryan

Statistical View:

Rahm:

  • Over the last 12 months, he is 4 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • In his last three events, he has gained over 10 strokes on the green

  • Gained strokes around the green in seven of his last nine events

Bryan:

  • Over the last 12 months, he is seven feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • Gained strokes putting in all but four events over the last 12 months

  • In his last seven events, he has gained strokes around the green in five of them

Team Aspect:

Rahm and Bryan have become very close friends over the past couple of years on Tour. They can often be found playing practice rounds together. Bryan seems to be the perfect compliment to Rahm in terms of both golf skill-set and personality. I look for this team to play loose and have fun.

Sleepers: Charley Hoffman and Nick Watney

Statistical View:

Hoffman:

  • Over the last 12 months, he is 2 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • Gained strokes on approach in eight consecutive events

  • Gained strokes putting inside 5 feet in ten of his last 15 events

Watney:

  • This year, he is 7 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • Above average in proximity from 175 to 200 yards and beyond 200 yards in all but one event this year

Team Aspect:

Watney and Hoffman have been friends for a very long time and have similar laid-back attitudes on the course. This team quietly finished fifth here a year ago.

Longshots: Emiliano Grillo and Peter Uihlein

Statistical View:

Grillo:

  • Over his last seven events, he is 8 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • Above average in proximity from 175 to 200 yards and beyond 200 yards in all but one event this year

  • Gained strokes off the tee in 37 of his last 38 events

  • Gained strokes putting in five of his last seven events

Uihlein:

  • This year, he is 7 feet closer than average on approaches from beyond 200 yards

  • Very solid putting inside of 5 feet, gaining strokes in all but two events this year

Team Aspect:

Grillo and Uihlein became close friends while grinding on the European Tour en route to the PGA Tour. This team may be one of the best ball striking teams in the field. If they can find a few hot putters, they could contend.