Golf is very much an individual sport and a successful professional golfer must be focused on his own game. When players are in pairings in stroke play tournaments there is sometimes conversation but the depth of the chat appears to be superficial. It takes a strong character or Nick Faldo to spend five hours in the company of other human beings without saying a word other then “Yardage? Five iron please!” to the caddie. The Zurich Classic on the US PGA Tour is totally unique in that players compete in teams of two men. The whole ethos of an individual sport is absent.
Golfers often say they love the team environment of the Ryder Cup and similar team events but some of them are not totally convincing. Professional golf is the epitome of self employment and akin to a zero hour’s contract. If you don’t play or miss the cut your income is zero. Golfers are literally playing for their supper and that instils single mindedness or put another way being self-centred. However, this week in the States it’s all about the team ethic and there will be a fascinating dynamic. Team chemistry can work well or go badly awry as it did in the 2004 Ryder Cup.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were number one and two in the world for many weeks. They were trying to beat each other in a dog-eats-dog sport. Maybe the personal rivalry was exaggerated in the media but they were never going to be best mates. Woods and Mickelson had a contrasting background so they were not natural friends. However, in the Ryder Cup in 2004 there was disdain and definite coldness. Pairing them in the first match on the first day was an accident waiting to happen. US team captain Hal Sutton made a huge error in pairing Woods and Mickelson so the combinations in this week’s event should be examined before placing any bets.
The obvious starting point is the defending champions who won the first Zurich Classic in this format last year. Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt won the inaugural two-man event in 2017 and are back this year. They clearly have course form and work well as a team but individually they are not playing well. They came out on top 12 months ago playing the best better ball golf on Thursday and Saturday and winning alternate shots on Friday and Saturday but other teams are preferred. Back-to back wins are rare and even more difficult in this once-a-year format.
There are three pairings featuring both players who are currently in the top 25 in the world rankings. Sergio Garcia and Rafael Cabrera Bello are playing for Spain and it will see the event in that context. Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson are buddies so that could be a winning formula. However, the strongest pairing on world rankings is Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose and the cream could rise to the top. They were in the final group at the Olympics in 2014 and played together here last year but missed the cut. They both have games suited to the course and the pairing are potential winners.
John Daly plays with Rory Sabbatini and David Duval and Jim Furyk join forces. These are two veteran partnerships but another couple both past the age of fifty could go well. Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly were both born in Wisconsin so they could be playing for their state. In this unique format stranger things have happened so the Stricker/Kelly combo is the one to back this week. They finished tied 14th a year ago but could beat their younger opponents and win this tournament from the senior ranks.