I walked away from my first trip to New Orleans and covering the Zurich Classic, thinking, uh, why wasn’t I here last year? It’s got it all — awesome city, great tournament with field, friendly people, scrumptious food, eclectic sweet-sounding tunes (especially at Jazz Fest — for the record, seeing Tom Petty live was a massive highlight, along with walking home from the Fair Grounds through Treme, aka a neighborhood some wouldn’t recommend trekking through, back to the French Quarter), and vibrant culture and atmosphere.
Zurich does such a good job with the event that the guys don’t mind the five- to-six-hour pro-am
drag round. In fact, many even enjoy it. They have delicious food stations featuring different dishes from the best restaurants in NOLA at almost every other hole.
I sent a somewhat cryptic tweet on Sunday night as I wistfully left NOLA, saying that it was my new favorite tour stop. I also mentioned several guys opted to play in the Zurich and to skip this week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, usually a must-go for players. Now, there are several reasons for this phenomenon, but my point is, the tournament’s revival mirrors the one that the city of New Orleans is also experiencing. To those who asked to explain, I replied they could read about it in Alan Shipnuck’s article — reported by yours truly — in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated Golf+.
The tournament has also attracted a quality field that’s helped the tournament grow in stature, so to speak. Top players, like 2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson (No. 4), Luke Donald (No. 2), Steve Stricker (7th), Justin Rose (10th), Webb Simpson (14th), Graeme McDowell (18th) and Keegan Bradley (20th), were on hand, not to mention Hall-of-Famer Ernie Els, fan favorite Rickie Fowler and good ol’ John Daly. That’s not by coincidence, writes Shipnuck:
The folks at Zurich deserve much of the credit. Since the global insurance company became as title sponsor in 2005, the purse has swelled from $5.1 million to $6.4 million, one of the fattest on Tour, and top players, signed by Zurich as “ambassadors,” have been lured with de facto appearance fees. (The agents for Bradley, Donald, Fowler, McDowell, Rose, Ben Crane and Camilo Villegas were unable to comment as they were too busy calculating their commissions.)
In internet speak, LOLZ!
What’s more, there’s a casino at the hotel, Harrah’s, where a fair share of players stay. Obviously, there’s a contingent of players who enjoy gambling (well, what golfer doesn’t? It’s programmed in our DNA!)
But with apologies to winner Jason Dufner, the star of the week was the host city. New Orleans is the kind of town you either love or loathe, and it has a loyal following among the more adventurous Tour players. One attraction is cut-rate hotel rooms at the downtown Harrah’s Casino. “I like to gamble, so I’m at the casino quite a bit,” says Colt Knost. “A bunch of us play.” But not necessarily well. “I think most guys have been dinged up this week,” adds Knost.
Says Matt Every, “I enjoy watching my friends lose because I like seeing their reaction. They won’t get nervous over a putt for $200,000, but they’ll lose their lid over a $50 hand of blackjack.”
Special thanks to Every for giving it his best to supply me with a quote that wouldn’t “incriminate him or his friends” (not that gambling at a casino is illegal and abnormal — the players weren’t burning the midnight oil if they had an early tee time).
What also intrigued me and Shipnuck was the decision for some players to skip Charlotte for New Orleans. Now that there’s a three-event stretch of marquee events, with NOLA, Charlotte and The Players, some guys have had to make tough calls and switch up their schedules a little bit (of course, not all have traditionally played Charlotte, but it’s the so-called 5th or 6th major).
With New Orleans’s increasingly becoming a must-play event, the balance of power on the PGA Tour schedule is shifting. The post-Augusta, pre–U.S. Open stretch used to be defined by the back-to-back Wells Fargo Championship and the Players. But Donald, Rose, Stricker, Els and, most important, Watson are among the big names who are skipping this week’s Wells Fargo, something unthinkable only a few years ago. “This tournament is great preparation for the Players,” says Rose. “This course reminds me a lot of Sawgrass. A lot of tee shots have the same visuals. It’s the same conditions, same grasses, same greens, same designer, same style, so if you’re going to play only two of these three tournaments, it makes sense to me to skip Quail Hollow.”
Els shares a nickname with New Orleans, so it should be no surprise that the Big Easy, despite losing in a playoff to Dufner, had a swell time. Asked what he most enjoyed about the week, Els said, “Great food and people who like to have a good time.” Speaking for an increasing number of his colleagues, Els added, “It’s my kind of town.”
More tidbits and quotes I gathered that I found interesting, which didn’t make the copy due to space or relevance…in other words, the deleted scenes.
Who/what has been the biggest surprise this year?
*Rickie Fowler: “ I’ve been surprised on how John Huh has played really well. He’s obviously had a really good season and then I guess I wouldn’t say a surprise but Hunter (Mahan) has played really well and then Bubba as well. Probably the biggest surprise for me is John Huh coming out, contending and having a win.”
*Greg Chalmers (a WUP reader!): “You know what I think has been surprising, maybe not surprising, but exciting — is how much the world no. 1 battle keeps changing back and forth. I think that’s been the most surprising thing. Two guys have done it without touching a golf club that week and Rory has done it twice now. But I think that’s been kind of refreshing, exciting for the game…I actually for the first time in a long time — I’ve been watching golf for a long time — I’m really excited to watch it at the moment. There are so many dynamic stories about the top players coming up and the unknown guys winning. Instead of just one person winning all the time, I think it’s more interesting.”
*David Toms: “I’d say to me, it’s what you’d expect. You have a lot of new, young faces playing well. You’ve got Tiger playing well and the story of him coming back. Mickelson won early in the year. You still have the usual suspects winning and you have the guys bombing it. Bubba winning the Masters — he hits it a long way with a cut, which is a draw for a right-hander, which is perfect for the course. So nothing has really surprised me at all.”
*Charles Howell III: “Uh, surprise? Nothing really surprises me anymore. I know that’s not the answer you wanted, but after 12 years, I’m not really surprised by anything. I think a great story is Bubba winning the Masters. I think that’s probably the top story of the year, just by the way he plays golf, etc., and his name is Bubba. Maybe the performance of the year is Louis Oosthuizen winning the week after, traveling all the way around the world and losing the Masters and then winning — I wouldn’t call it surprising, but it was impressive.”
*Chris Stroud: “A lot of guys coming from behind, lot of rookies winning, it’s pretty amazing. It just shows the depth of the PGA Tour. I don’t think there’s any person in this field that can’t win this tournament. I don’t think you can say that anywhere else in this world.”
*Justin Rose: “Let’s say Bubba’s consistency — not finishing outside the top 18. Considering his game, it appears to be a game that’s erratic and you don’t know what quite to expect, but if you look at his results, it’s remarkably consistent. We always know he can win every week, but to be top 18 every week, that’s pretty cool.” [Ed. note: Rosey is a smart guy and whatddayaknow? -- Even though Bubba was just so, so tired, he finished T18 in NOLA to keep the streak alive.]
*Rocco Mediate: “None of these guys surprise me. These guys as a tour we’re so good at what we do, it’s ridiculous. People have no — it’s just hard to comprehend. You see the shots that these guys hit and it’s silly, and it’s like normal. People are going what the heck? You see Bubba at the Masters and Jason Dufner — look how good he’s been playing every week, he’s going to knock it down soon. These kids are so good, all of them. I want to stay out here with these kids. Nothing really stuns me. You know what was really amazing, the kid who lost San Diego? Kyle Stanley. That was amazing what he did, that was shocking what he did. Because after that loss — the next week after you lose, you just want to hang yourself, it’s like let’s go jump off a bridge or something! (Laughter) But then he goes and wins. It wasn’t shocking, it was just amazing. That’s hard to do …it’s hard to do anything out here consistently. I was looking up at the leader board today and I was saying to Martin (my caddie), where are these guys playing?? What’s going on??”
*Kevin Streelman: “I wouldn’t say it was a surprise to be honest, but I thought it was really exciting at the Masters. I wasn’t surprised how either of those two (Bubba and Louis Oosthuizen) finished there. I’m really impressed with what Kyle Stanley did — what he did wasn’t surprising. I was a little surprised with Tiger at Augusta. I thought he was really going to come out and win there as well as he played at Bay Hill. It’s been an incredible golf season this year.”
Yeah, I haven’t been on the golf beat for very long and already nothing surprises me. I mean, it does and it doesn’t. It is what it is!
How big of a deal is Bubba to golf right now?
*Rickie: “He’s huge. He is more like just the regular guy off the street.Not that he’s a bum or anything. He’s just a normal guy. He’s not from a country club background with a swing coach, mental coach or anything like that. I think the regular fan can relate to him pretty well because he’s a normal guy that basically learned to play the game out of the dirt and he still plays it all over the place. He doesn’t hit it straight too often.”
*Chalmers: “It seems like anytime someone who wins the US Masters who is like that — he’s a big personality guy, he’s a big game guy. Like if I had won, it would have been like, ah, ok, another run-of-the-mill guy, but when a guy hits it 330 yards, dresses how he dresses, he’s on Twitter all the time, likes to be in front of the press, I think when that guy wins, it makes it a bigger story because he embraces the attention. I think that’s always good for the game. I always like to see guys like that, especially first-time winners, and then they can promote the game.” (Ed. note: My favorite answer.)
*Toms: “He’s obviously very fun to watch. I’ve always enjoyed playing with him and the way he plays. You know, to not have instructors and coaches and mental coaches, life coaches and all that stuff out here now, for a guy to do that, it’s pretty impressive.”
*Michael Bradley: “I think it’s great, I think when Tiger came in, he brought a whole new genre of people with interest in the game and I think it’s the same with Bubba and he’s bringing a different class of people in. Everyone should enjoy the game. I think it’s awesome. The way he plays, a lot of people can relate to it. He kind of wings it as he goes and a lot of people that’s how they play golf. It’s nice to see an American doing that — not that I have any issues with foreign players.”
*Stroud: “Awesome. Bubba’s an awesome character. We need that. Everybody is like me — tall, lean blonde. We need different personalities, a lot of guys out here don’t real well. I’m a talker. We need personalities. We need guys that can mix it up out there and show a little emotion out there, make it more interesting.”
Before the must-play events in this stretch were just Quail Hollow and the Players, now you add New Orleans to the mix, making it a three-tourney stretch, does that affect your schedule at all? (In other words: rationale from guys not playing Charlotte…)
*Rose: I think this is great preparation for The Players. This course reminds me a lot of TPC Sawgrass — a lot of tee shots have the same visuals, so for me, if you’re going to play two tournaments and go back-to-back, this week and TPC Sawgrass are the exact same conditions, same grasses, same greens, same designer, same style, so then you’re not having to switch gears from Bermuda (grass) this week to bent grass next week at Quail Hollow and then back to Bermuda for the Players. For me, rationale it makes a pretty good reason to play this week and Players.”
*Streelman: “Well, for me the Players is our premier event of the year — it’s got the biggest purse and most FedEx points and I really want to be prime for that, so that’s why I’m not playing next week at Quail Hollow. It’s kind of hard for me not to play Quail because my parents live right near there, my sister lives right near there, I played right at Duke right near there. But I think for my best interest and for my game and my rest, I want to take off the week before the Players. Also, those 36-hole qualifiers for the British and US Opens on the other side of Colonial and Memorial which are my two favorite events of the year and what I really rest up for, so I’ll take off Dallas and this next week and get ready for the Players.”
*Steve Stricker: “I’ve been playing a touch bit less, so I’m taking Quail off and then I’m playing the Players. My schedule is pretty much the same as last year. For a lot of guys, this is a big stretch. You’ve got these three events, then you’ve got Colonial after the Players, Memorial — guys like to play those events. It’s a tricky scheduling time. You’ve got to go where you like to play and where you play well at, too.”
*Asked his favorite dish during the pro-am, Stricker said: “I didn’t eat much. I’ve been watching what I eat. I was eating on a lot of raw nuts from my bag, unfortunately, because usually I’ll hit every one of those stops. I had one dish out there, so I can’t answer that fairly.”
Stricks, not the best timing! Couldn’t you have taken a week hiatus for that? I mean, eating raw nuts when you’ve got all the oysters, crab, crawfish, etc., you can eat is blasphemous.
What’s Bubba, the dad, like?
*Rickie: I’m uncle Rickie. It was a lot of fun. Obviously it was the biggest life changing event for the both of them. Probably more so than the Masters. I’d say that was a close second. I’d say with the Masters win, Bubba wouldn’t have to change his lifestyle and the way he goes about things so much versus having a baby boy. He’s going to have to change a few things. Obviously it was really fun to spend some time with them in Orlando.
Does he seem overwhelmed?
*RF: If they have twins, that might be a bit much. Angie (his wife) probably has got her hands full with Caleb and Bubba. Bubba’s got to learn how to take care of himself at times. They’ve been great the times I’ve been around. They’re loving it. They don’t seem overwhelmed at all. They’re learning as they go. It’s fun to see it.
Were you aware of the journey they were on?
*RF: A little bit. I don’t try and get too involved unless they want me to. Obviously Bubba and I are close and if he wants someone to talk to or someone to vent to, I’m there. I knew the last few months the ups and downs of it and he called me once they found out they were getting Caleb and they were pretty pumped. He might have been more excited that day than winning the Masters.
I understand it’d been quite a long process, what was it, four years?
*RF: I know the past year or so it’d when they were really pushing. They wanted to have a kid and they jumped on it. They’re just renting in Florida right now, but part of it was Caleb couldn’t leave Florida before it was finalized. If they stay in Orlando, it’s just a little over a two hour drive and hopefully we can hang out more at home. Yeah, everything’s been great – no major problems yet.
What did Bubba exactly say to you when he called to tell you?
*RF: He just came out and said, Angie and I adopted a baby boy. He’s very direct.
Tuesday was my first day this year at Quail Hollow and it reminded me that this three-week stretch truly is probably the best of the year and awesome way to kickoff the summer.