Zurich Classic stands strong amid PGA changes

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WESTWEGO – The Zurich Classic of New Orleans has carved out a niche as the only team format event on the PGA Tour.

That identity has been strengthened since the format adoption in 2017 and the tournament organizers hope it has the event poised to withstand “a lot of changes on the PGA Tour,” Zurich tournament director Steve Worthy said at Media Day on Monday.

Worthy referred to “a divisive time with LIV,” referencing the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf League, which has lured big-name players away from PGA events, including two-time Zurich champion Cameron Smith.

Other names familiar to Zurich attendees that will be absent because of their commitment to LIV include Henrik Stenson, Patrick Reid, Bubba Watson, Marc Leishman, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Grahame McDowell and Ian Poulter.

“We’re not thrilled that some of the guys who went to LIV were regulars here,” Worthy said. “We’ll miss them, but on the PGA Tour right now there are a lot of really good, young players that are about to be stars. You’re going to see some of those names here.”

Worthy cited as examples of budding stars players who were recently in contention – Taylor Moore (last weekend in Tampa, Fla.), Sam Ryder (at the Farmers) and Nick Taylor (at Phoenix).

Defending champions Patrick Cantlay, the 2021 FedExCup winner and current No. 4 in the world, and Xander Schauffele, the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal winner and current No. 7, spoke via teleconference Monday from the WGC Match Play tournament in Austin, Texas.

Other prominent names in this year’s field are expected to be released later this week, followed by “a flood of names” over the next three weeks.

The presence of LIV has led the PGA to designate elevated and non-elevated tournaments on its schedule. This year’s schedule includes 17 elevated events, which feature increased purses and guaranteed appearances by the top players on the PGA Tour.

The Zurich will be a non-elevated event when it is held April 20-23 at TPC Louisiana, but it’s a candidate to gain elevated status going forward. One of the current elevated events – this week’s WGC – won’t continue beyond this year.

Twelve of the remaining 16 spots have been designated for next year, leaving four “wild cards to be determined” – in Worthy’s words – up for grabs in 2024.

Worthy said “conversations are ongoing” and “Zurich is certainly interested in being elevated and we are as well.”

This year’s PGA schedule features one elevated event (Hilton Head) the week before the Zurich and another (Wells Fargo) two weeks after the Zurich.

“This year the elevated event schedule makes it a little more difficult (for the Zurich). We were surrounded by a lot of them,” Worthy said. “That players like our event enough to still have a very good field says a lot about us and makes me happy.

“Next year, as the Tour works out the schedule, for how it would affect any non-elevated event, they want to try to spread things so that nobody gets too many elevated events surrounding them to make it too difficult.”

Becoming an elevated tournament would require the Zurich to increase its purse from $8.6 million to $20. That increase could be covered by multiple sources, including Zurich itself and network television contracts.

“Being elevated is going to pretty close to guarantee you a really good field,” Worthy said. “There has been talk about, could events be elevated every other year or more than that. The Tour wants to come up with the best plan for the players. They’ve got sponsorship to keep happy.

“Whether they’re rotated, whether because you’re elevated in one year, a year or two later, will you still be elevated? I think that’s an ongoing process. They’re still trying to figure all that out right now.”

Another change is to employ “no-cut fields.”

“They’re looking at small fields with no cuts,” Worthy said. “And what does that do to the amount of golf on the golf course during the day for spectators? Ideally, a cut to 80 players – we’re 160 right now – so we’d cut the amount of golf in half … I’d like to be elevated but with a few more players, but obviously that’s not our call.”

Schauffele said the Zurich’s unique format, in addition to providing relevant preparation for the President’s Cup and the Ryder Cup international team events, is “a nice change of pace” for the players.

Though the elevated events will have their own attractiveness, Cantlay said players will still be lured to other tournaments for different reasons.

“I think you play the tournaments on Tour that are your favorites and everyone has different favorites,” he said. “So I think you’ll see guys round out their schedules with tournaments that maybe aren’t elevated but are tournaments that they’ve played at or tournaments that are hometown tournaments and this tournament stands out as one of the tournaments that is different with the format.”

As for spectators, Worthy said the Zurich continues to offer “something for everybody.” That includes “a very good field that will keep the hard-core gold fans happy” and food, drink and music for “the casual golf fans that come out for everything else we have to offer that we’re always working to make better.”

And, Worthy said, that won’t change no matter what changes take place on the PGA Tour.

“As we go forward, elevated or not elevated,” he said, “the fact that our guys enjoy coming to New Orleans and playing in this golf tournament will keep us in a good place regardless. I feel like we’re going to be in good shape either way.”

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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