This week I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done before in my life.
I sat down to purposely watch the Zurich Classic from New Orleans.
Before we go any further, yes I am a golfer and a golf fan who doesn’t just casually tune in for the majors and who can still only name Tiger Woods as a professional golfer. I would estimate that I tune in to at least watch part of probably 50% or more of the tour events on the calendar. And to the PGA Tour’s credit, with the World Golf Championships and the FedEx Cup playoff there are way more events where the best golfers in the world all come together than there were 10 or especially 20 years ago.
But the Zurich Classic? It’s never been must-see TV. Until this year, that is.
Go through the list of winners here and you won’t find Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy. Even though the tournament has been around in some capacity since 1938, in recent years it hasn’t been considered a premier event.
That all changed when this year the Zurich Classic became the first tournament in over 35 years on the PGA Tour to use a team format with the best golfers in the world paired with each other in stroke play competition. The teams played alternate shot on Thursday and Saturday and better ball on Friday and Sunday. The unique format was an immediate hit with golfers and fans. Billy Horschel echoed the majority of tour pros by saying the event was a huge success and the best is yet to come.
Truly believe that @Zurich_Classic will be a must play event for majority of players from now. Will only get better from here on out.
— Billy Horschel (@BillyHo_Golf) April 28, 2017
The tournament certainly delivered with the excitement level on the course as well. Kevin Kisner dramatically chipped in for eagle in the late hours of the evening to send he and partner Scott Brown into a Monday playoff with Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith. Blixt and Smith finally won the Monday playoff on the fourth extra hole when Smith made birdie for his first career win and Blixt’s third PGA victory.
The Ryder Cup might be golf’s most exciting event and in part it’s the team format that makes it so compelling. When every week on the schedule is the player against the golf course as an individual, seeing the dynamic of working together as a team is a unique occasion. And the stories of how certain golfers chose to team together – whether they went to the same school or have the same coach or played together previously or won/lost a bet – are equally as unique. And the results were unpredictable as well. Neither team that made the playoff would be considered among the favorites before the week, especially with super teams like Jason Day-Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose-Henrik Stenson in the field.
The unpredictability, the action, the team format, the fun that everyone had – it all made the Zurich Classic very relevant and brought the PGA Tour into the headlines when they otherwise wouldn’t be.
It’s now that the light bulb should go off for the Tour and other tournaments on the schedule that aren’t the majors or other premier events like The Players or The Memorial – do something unique.
It’s no secret that golf has struggled for ratings and buzz now that we’re in the post-Tiger era so anything the sport can do to gain more of those things is a great thing. Specifically, the more tournaments that can become more relevant, the better it is for the sport as a whole.
So why not have more events that aren’t just individual stroke play? There’s nothing in golf’s written or unwritten rules that says every tournament has to be played under the exact same format.
Even within the team structure there are a lot of options. A tournament could do a four-man scramble for all four rounds just to see how ridiculously low scores could go. In a smaller field, you could combine the Zurich Classic with the Match Play and make it a pairs tournament. By involving the LPGA and Champions Tour, you could also have a cross-promotional event with teams made up of one player from each tour.
Why not bring back the modified Stableford scoring system with its points awarded for eagles and birdies for a major tour event? (Right now it’s used in Reno, but it’s played the same week as the WGC event in Akron as an alternate event.) The International was always one of my favorite events to watch back in my younger days because of the unique points system and in some years the winner was decided by just the final round score after second and third round cuts.
What about a tournament where the field gets progressively smaller each day and scores are reset after every round? How would you like to see a tournament that was an 18 hole shootout between 18 or 24 players? It would bring a unique sense of excitement and cause golfers to think differently about how to approach a certain week.
One of the most radical ideas out there in the wake of this week’s event is a tournament where golfers could only use a limited number of clubs in their bag. Think of all the intrigue and different strategies if a tournament was held where a golfer could only select four clubs to use for the entire weekend. A little gimmicky? Maybe. But just imagine all of the possibilities, combinations, and different shots that would be played. If you’re the Sony Open or the John Deere Classic, take a chance on offering golfers the ultimate test of their skills and becoming an event that everyone would talk about.
Part of the fun in golf is how many creative ways you can play a round. Go to any local course and you’ll see stroke play, match play, scrambles, skins games, and so many more games to play. If the PGA Tour wants to reach out to more fans, they should race at the chance to let their creative juices flow and bring some of those ideas to the highest levels of the game after the success of this week’s team event.