Zurich Classic Pairings Offer Fun Plus Nearly Unknowns

Apr 27, 2017; Avondale, LA, USA; Brooks Koepka looks over the 10th hole during the first round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans golf tournament at TPC Louisiana. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 27, 2017; Avondale, LA, USA; Brooks Koepka looks over the 10th hole during the first round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans golf tournament at TPC Louisiana. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

Some of the Zurich Classic teams have very engaging backstories – meet a few guys you may not know very well, yet.

The Zurich Classic may send you to Google to do some player research. There are a few names that may leave you scratching your head.  One reason, as explained by PGA TOUR Media Official Mark Williams, is that the tournament used its sponsor exemptions to help a few PGA TOUR players build teams they wanted.

The tournament has a limited number of exemptions, just like all PGA TOUR events, and chose to use them to accommodate PGA TOUR players who wanted a particular partner, even if that guy wasn’t exempt or wasn’t on the PGA TOUR.  They also exempted a couple of international teams.

Here’s how those exemptions worked to put some unique teams together.

The Koepka Brothers

An exemption is how the pair of Chase Koepka and Brooks Koepka came to be.

Chase is not a PGA TOUR player.  In fact, he’s 1445th on the official world golf rankings.  But he is Brooks Koepka’s brother.  Brooks wanted to play, he said in his press conference this week, because it’s where he locked up his PGA TOUR card.  New Orleans is special for him.  So he made some inquiries to find out if there was a way his brother could participate.  Turns out, the special exemption was the avenue, and he made the request to Zurich in time for them to decide to grant it.

As far as how they will play together, Brooks said, “We could either kill each other, or it could be an awesome week. It will be fun.”

The Koepka brothers have only played in one tournament together, a U.S. Amateur qualifier.

Before making the pairing with his brother, Brooks said in a press conference, that he talked briefly with Brandt Snedeker, and told him that he was holding out for his brother to get an exemption.  He also predicted sub-60 scores were quite possible with the better-ball format which will be played Friday and Sunday.  Alternate shot is in the cards for Thursday and Saturday.

A Peek at Some International Pairings

Chase Koepka is not the only interesting exemption.

Julian Etulain, partnering with Angel Cabrera, winner of the Masters and the U.S. Open, is 28 years old and from Argentina.   His twitter feed is  @tula_etulain, and you’ll need to brush up on your Spanish to enjoy the full flavor.  Cabrera also required a sponsor choice to play this week because his PGA TOUR exemption from his major championships has run out.

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Then there’s Ryan Ruffels, a U.S. citizen who moved to Australia when his dad, a native Aussie and former tennis pro, got a job offer to return home. Ruffels, part-way through Thursday, was leading the tournament with his partner, Kyle Stanley.

Hideki Matsuyama requested a partnership with Hideto Tanihara, the 38-year-old Japanese veteran who took Jordan Spieth out of the WGC-Dell Match Play in the first round.  Tanihara surprised several golfers that week.  Could he pull another rabbit out of his bag this week?

Both Tyrrell Hatton and Jamie Donaldson are primarily European Tour players.  Donaldson got PGA TOUR status, but lost it last season when he only played 13 qualifying events. Both needed sponsor exemptions.

Hatton is ranked 16th in the world and has spent most of his career on the European Tour.  This is his seventh PGA TOUR event this season, but as a non-member, Hatton also needed an exemption to participate at Zurich.

Some New Guys

Some of the newer players are also at the Zurich Classic, including Zach Blair whose claim to fame was being disqualified after he altered his putter during a round at last year’s Wells Fargo by hitting himself in the head with it.  It caused the club to be non-conforming, and the damage did not occur during what is called the normal course of play, hence the DQ. ( Rule 4-3b.) He’s playing with C.T. Pan (@ctpan63), who played golf at the University of Washington. They participated in the PGA Tour Newlywed Game video to promote Zurich.

Former U.S. Amateur champ Kelly Kraft is partnering with Kevin Tway, son of PGA champ Bob Tway who is one of those who holed out to deny Greg Norman a major title.

And in an amazing pairing, there’s PGA Tour Champions player Rocco Mediate playing with Spencer Levin.  Mediate will use the Vertical Groove driver.

Now in addition to those, there is one totally interesting pairing that will make for exciting watching.  That’s Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes.  While you’ll need a telescope to find their drives, it’s certain that watching how far they hit it will be fun for fans.  Everybody digs the long ball, and it’s harder to find two longer hitters than this twosome.

Next: Zurich Classic - A Perfectly Timed Experiment

Whether you only have eyes for the featured groups like Olympic medalists Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, or the glamour pairing of Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, or the long-ball pair of Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes, the Zurich Classic should offer some interesting golf this week.  And should one of the special exemption players win, he would get a two-year pass to play on the PGA TOUR.