Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson combine to make move in 'tricky format'
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The European duo set the early pace with a 68 to share the low round of the day
Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62
Justin Rose & Henrik Stenson combine for birdie at No. 7 at Zurich Classic
Team golf. Those two words conjure images of sheer joy, of birdies and eagles, broad smiles and high-fives. The field in this week’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans, the PGA TOUR’s lone official two-man team event, went out in Thursday’s best-ball format and blistered TPC Louisiana to an average of 66.7 strokes. It was puppies and rainbows. Winning scratch tickets for all.
On Friday, the format shifted to alternate-shot. Dreaded foursomes. Two players, one golf ball. On what already was a challenging day for scoring, those Thursday smiles turned into Friday grimaces and hard-bitten lower lips. Every ball deposited into watery penalty areas – and designer Pete Dye incorporated a few – represents not only individual pain, but team pain, too. It’s a multiplier. Playing for somebody else adds a tense ingredient to the team dynamic.
Some players figured it out better than others. Playing in the afternoon, long bashers Tony Finau and Cameron Champ shot 4-under 68, tying the day’s low round and seizing the tournament lead 13-under 131 through 36 holes. Kris Ventura and Viktor Hovland would step up late and match them.
Teammates from Norway who were on a national championship college team at Oklahoma State three years ago, Ventura and Hovland overcame a double bogey on their sixth hole (No. 16) and played their final eight holes in 4 under to shoot 69 and tie the lead heading to the weekend. A beautiful approach to 11 feet at the difficult 206-yard ninth (the team’s final hole) by Hovland would set up a rare birdie and push them to 13 under.
European Ryder Cup partners Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson shot 68 despite encountering three bogeys, including one on the par-5 18th hole (their ninth of the day). They’ve played enough times in the format to exercise extra patience at times and not try to do too much, though their seven team birdies accounted for a better-than-average day’s work.
The foursomes format, seldomly played outside of a handful of every-other-year cup matches (Presidents Cup, Ryder Cup, etc.), brings in more decision-making (who tees off on the odd holes?), delivers a different element of competitive pressure (hitting shots for two) and even factors in technology (golfers playing different brands of golf balls than they normally play).
Stenson used a pair of “T” words to describe his Friday: Tricky, describing the format, and trust, describing his effective partnership with Rose.
“Foursomes is always a tricky format,” said Stenson, the 2016 Open champion. “We know that. But it's never going to be as tricky when you've got a good partner like I do. We talked about that earlier in the week, to trust, and having done this so many times before, we kind of go about things like we normally do. Yeah, we played a very solid round of foursomes out there.”
Stenson and Rose each made a clutch 5-footer to open the round (Rose making his for birdie at the par-5 11th) and the pair would sandwich bogeys at 15 and 18 with two birdies. They birdied both par 5s on the front, and added another birdie at the par-4 fifth (Stenson making a 10-footer) against a lone second-nine bogey at No. 6.
Rose added that as much as he wants to (and does) trust his partner, a golfer looking for success in foursomes must also keep plenty of trust in oneself, and not worry about the occasional poor shot that might leave a partner in a tough predicament. A good foursomes partnership can be like a good marriage; it’s often about never having to say you’re sorry.
“I think it's all about committing to your shots,” Rose said. “Henrik doesn't want to hit it in the water on No. 9 and (if) he blocks it right of the green, (it) probably doesn't do us any good anyway. But the only way he's going to step up and hit a great shot is by not worrying about what he might leave me. I think that's kind of the way to approach this format.”
Rose and Stenson, big-time players who won Olympic gold and silver, respectively, as golf returned to the Olympic Summer Games in Brazil in 2016, form one of two major-championship winner tandems in the 80-team field. South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel form the other, and also have considerable experience playing alongside one another. (They’ve competed together at the Presidents Cup, and their friendship dates to junior golf.)
Friday they made only three birdies against two bogeys, but 71 was good enough to stay in contention. They knew that going in. They are at 10-under 134.
“You know, with better-ball, you play with a lot more freedom,” Oosthuizen said. “You sort of always know you have another score that can count and sort of if you fall on that score. With this format, if you make a mistake, it's the team that's going to make a bogey or something, and it's stressful, especially around this golf course with a lot of water, and the wind is really picking up.”
Schwartzel added that foursomes with Oosthuizen causes him other issues: “I’m not used to hitting out of so many fairways,” he said, smiling.
Aussies Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith teamed up for seven birdies and an eagle in opening-day best-ball. On Friday, amid swirling winds and a TPC Louisiana layout that was becoming downright ornery, they were relieved to return to the clubhouse with a level-par score of 72.
“I think foursomes is hard,” Leishman said. “You're hitting half the shots; there's no rhythm. You've got to make sure you're loose between shots. Yeah, it's just hard. … I was actually quite happy with even par on what was a really tough day.”
Ah, but Friday evening in New Orleans, there was a sliver of light at the end of the rainbow. Saturday’s format returns to free-wheeling four-ball, a bit of a breather until those feared foursomes rear their head again on Sunday.