Sunday, April 30, 2017

Blixt and Smith lead Zurich Classic by four

AVONDALE, Louisiana – Predicting a winning score for this weekend’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans was a difficult task, given it’s the US PGA Tour’s first official team event in 36 years. There’s no recent history, no analytics on which to base assumptions. But Jordan Spieth gave it a shot four days ago.
“Something around 18 to 20 under,” he said.
Now we’ve reached the final round, and the leaders – Sweden’s Jonas Blixt and Australia’s Cam Smith, both of whom reside in the Jacksonville, Florida, area – are already at that number. At 19 under after their impressive 4-under 68 in windy conditions Saturday at TPC Louisiana, the duo will take a four-shot lead into Sunday over two players from South Carolina (Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown) and two native Californians (Charley Hoffman and Nick Watney).
Spieth and his fellow Texan, Ryan Palmer, are five shots back at 14 under. With birdies expected to be plentiful for Sunday’s Four-ball round, Spieth was asked if he needed to adjust his target score.
He did.
“Somewhere around 24-, 25-under probably,” he replied.
Seems about right, considering what transpired in Friday’s Four-ball round, in which one team (South Africans Retief Goosen and Tyrone Van Aswegen) shot a 12-under 60, and six others (including Blixt and Smith) shot 62.
If Spieth and Palmer can shoot one of those 62s on Sunday, that puts them at 24 under and might give them a fighting chance.
Of course, it all depends on how Blixt, who turned 33 earlier this week, and the 23-year-old Smith handle the pressure of being the hunted. Blixt has won twice on TOUR, but Smith has never been in this position in his brief TOUR career. In 52 prior starts, his best position after the third round came last week at the Valero Texas Open, when he was tied for fourth. He eventually finished tied for sixth.
But if there’s pressure on these two, you’d never know it. They’ve been very loose all week, Blixt with his sarcastic humor and Smith trying to soak it all in.
“It’s just fun,” Blixt said. “It’s like going back to playing as a kid. You just go out there and have fun and try to make birdies. I don’t feel like there’s any stress at all out there and there’s no pressure.”
The rest of the field, of course, hopes that changes Sunday, with FedExCup points and money and the other benefits that go with being a TOUR winner available to each winning team member. If Blixt and Smith produce something close to their Friday performance, then everybody else is playing for second.
But Sunday pressure is Sunday pressure, no matter if it’s an individual event or in a team format.
“Obviously, it’s the final day so people get a little bit more nervous,” said Bubba Watson, who is at 11 under with teammate J.B. Holmes.
Plus, the format itself should provide for plenty of aggressive play for the chasers. With two opportunities on each hole, there’s little to fear in best-ball format. Of the 80 teams in the field Friday, nearly half (39) were bogey-free. And having to make up four shots or more, there’s no reason for the contenders to hold back.
The only factor that could negatively impact the scores will be the weather. Gusts of 35 mph or more are in the forecast, similar to the winds in Saturday’s alternate-shot round. There’s also an oncoming storm set to hit Sunday afternoon that forced tournament officials to move up the tee times, with the final group teeing off at 8:16 a.m. local.
Chris Stroud, who is at 12 under with last year’s Zurich champ, Brian Stuard, doesn’t expect the kind of low scores Sunday that were produced on Friday. Not only will the wind impact shots, but it was difficult for players on the greens Saturday, forced to either back off or make adjustments on many attempts.
“If the wind was calm, you could see a 60,” Stroud said. “… But with the wind, it’s going to be very difficult. We shot 64 on Friday – we’re probably going to need something like that again. You’re going to have to make a lot of birdies.”
“We’ve got to go out and shoot 8- to 10- [under] to do what we need to do,” said Brown, who will join teammate Kisner in the final group with the leaders. “… We’re going to have a lot of opportunities.”
Said Watney: “With the format, I’m sure there will be a 9- or 10-under. Hopefully it’s us and not the guys in the lead.”
Indeed, Smith and Blixt have this tournament in their hands now.
“I feel very comfortable going into tomorrow,” Smith said.
Don’t get too comfortable. Sunday will be unlike any other Sunday on the US PGA TOUR in 36 years. In a format that demands aggressive play but in winds that could offer some resistance, something will have to give.





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