AVONDALE, La. (AP) — For defending Zurich Classic champions Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, teaming up in New Orleans — and elsewhere — has been as much about how well they get along as whether their golf games complement one another.
“We don’t have friendship bracelets yet,” Schauffele began, inducing laughter. “Maybe we’ll get those worked out after this week.”
The PGA Tour's only team event resumes Thursday at the par-72, 7,425-yard TPC Louisiana.
The New Orleans event is not among the PGA Tour's newly “elevated” tournaments; the Zurich Classic purse is $8.6 million. It also has a somewhat unfavorable spot on this year's schedule, just two weeks after the Masters and just days after the conclusion of the elevated, $20 million RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
But that hasn't stopped a number of top players from showing up in the Big Easy, including RBC champion Matt Fitzpatrick. The Englishman's teammate is his younger brother, Alex, who plays professionally in Europe.
“Obviously, this was an opportunity to play with my brother, and you don’t know how many of those you’re going to get,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, who also is the defending U.S. Open champion. “It was a no-brainer for me.”
The Fitzpatricks don't necessarily see themselves as favorites in a field that also includes teams such as as two-time major winner Colin Morikawa and six-time PGA Tour winner Max Homa; or former Zurich winner Billy Horschel and last month’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play winner Sam Burns.
But they intend to contend, Matt Fitzpatrick said, touting Alex's recent showings in Europe, highlighted by six top-30 finishes on the DP World and Challenge tours.
“I’m really proud of where his game is at and how much he’s improved,” Matt Fitzpatrick said of Alex, who played college golf at Wake Forest, turned pro last June and would earn a PGA Tour card with a win in New Orleans. “I do believe that he’s got a lot of talent, and hopefully soon he’ll start showing that.”
Missing from the Zurich are some past championship who've joined LIV Golf, including Australians Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman, who teamed up to win two years ago. For now, LIV players are barred from competing on the PGA Tour.
But for Homa, the event remains compelling, even without a slew of big names.
For one, he said, there is drama in seeing lower-ranked players capitalize on opportunities to climb. But it's also a chance for some top golfers to team up with friends or colleagues against whom they usually compete.
“A lot of people don’t know who’s friends out here, you just see us play," Homa noted. "So, now you get to kind of see that.”
Morikawa added that what the Zurich offers "is something very different” from the rest from the schedule.
“When you have a week like this, they’re fun," he said. "We get to have team dinners. We get to go hang out. There’s a different vibe.”
The first and third rounds of the Zurich are played in a best-ball format, while teammates play alternate shots in the second and final rounds.
Last year, Cantlay and Schauffele — who also have been partners at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup — opened with a 59 to take a lead they would not relinquish en route to a record-setting 29-under 259 — two strokes better than the Burns-Horschel tandem.
This year, the winners take home $1.24 million each. And Schauffele will be among the least surprised if the team cashing the winner's checks happens to be comprised of players who are also friends.
“At the end of the day, the players competing that are on the same team need to like each other,” Schauffele said. “That’s a really big part of the chemistry.”
DIVOTS: The Zurich field fittingly includes U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson, who'll get a chance to scout how some top American teams play together while he also competes on his own team with former Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker.
While six players qualify automatically for the 12-man U.S. team, Johnson picks the other six. Whether LIV Golf players are included in that number remains to be seen, Johnson said Wednesday.
“No decisions have been made,” Johnson said. “There’s still a lot of time left in that regard, and so many fluid factors.”
Among those factors, Johnson said, will be input from the six automatic qualifiers.
“I’m going to rely heavily on the guys that actually make the team, because it’s their team,” he said.