It became clear early in Round 4 on Sunday at the Zurich Classic that the tournament was going to come down to the two teams in the final pairing at TPC Louisiana, which happened to be two teams that know one another pretty well. The South African squad of Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel led by one over the Australian duo of Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith coming into the 18 holes of alternate-shot play. Neither team got more than two clear of the other team, although both teams led by that many on multiple holes. The last hour was chaos.
In the end, Smith and Leishman prevailed in a playoff, but it sure did not look like that was going to be the case over the last four holes. Smith and Leishman were up by one stroke on the 15th tee box, but a birdie from the South Africans and a sloppy Aussie bogey left them down one going to No. 16. The tournament began to play on the back nine -- with few other teams in the mix -- like a more volatile version of match play.
Then on the 16th tee, Smith got a bad bounce on his approach to the drivable par 4. It rolled up toward the green and then back down into the water. Following the bogey, it felt like a death knell. But after dropping greenside Leishman chipped one in for birdie to tie it up at 21 under.
After bogeys from both teams on the 17th, both parred the 18th to land in a playoff. The playoff hole was over nearly before it started. The always-metronomic Oosthuizen jumped up quickly to his first tee shot and pumped it into the water out to the right on the par-5 18th. That was pretty much it as the Australian team wisely played for par and got it for the win.
"It was a pretty cool week," said Smith in his usual understated way. "We played some really solid golf. That back nine was brutal."
In a week where some players are trying to piece together a team of dovetailed skillsets or similar levels of play, Smith and Leishman have a relationship that dates back to playing on Presidents Cup teams together and a genuine friendship in a profession often bereft of them.
"I just think it just reduces stress a little bit, particularly when you're in a bit of a tough spot," Smith said of their relationship on Saturday evening. "You know, we play jokes with each other out there today, but tomorrow is probably a little bit more stressful and a little bit more full-on. But it's definitely a relief to know that I've got one of my best mates beside me, and he's trying just as hard as I am. So it's good."
There was a bit of foreshadowing with that "particularly when you're in a bit of a tough spot" analysis as less than 24 hours later, Smith would need his partner to chip in to have a shot to win. Leishman did pick him up, though. And two players who over the last month have been playing some of their best golf in years got to experience maybe the only thing better than a solo win in such a solitary sport. On Sunday, after a week of mullet mockery, short-game magic and absolutely flawless four-ball play, they got to raise a trophy together. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the Zurich Classic.
Patrick Cantlay-Xander Schauffele (T11): After Round 1, this tournament felt like it was theirs to lose. However, the 74 they shot in alternate-shot format in Round 2 almost completely took them out of contention on the weekend. They were fine in Round 3 with a 68 and closed with an unbelievable 31 on Sunday in that same alternate-shot format, but an inability to hold the round together in the middle of the event led to a finish outside the top 10. I still mostly like them as a tandem in team events. Their apparent downfall -- little energy, no hype -- can be used as a weapon if leveraged in the correct way. That is, they would be an absolute methodical nightmare to play against and would give opponents nothing to play off of. I think we'll probably see them together at Whistling Straits later on this year. I also didn't realize how apparently close they are as friends, which will be construed as meaningful at future team events. Grade: B+
Tony Finau-Cameron Champ (T17): It was a strange week for a duo that I did not expect to thrive as much as they did this week at TPC Louisiana. Champ and Finau made one (!!) bogey over the first three days before going out in 40 on Sunday to completely play their way out of contention before shooting 76 to close out the week. There might not be two players who make destroying the golf ball look more effortless than these two, and over the first three days that translated to great scoring.
"We ham-and-egged it the first day, ham-and-egged it today," said Finau on Saturday after they shot 67 in Round 3. "When I was a little off, he picked me up; when he was a little off, I picked him up. That's the essence of team golf ..."
Despite the drop over the last 18 holes, they were a fascinating duo -- and potential, way-down-the-road international team event twosome? -- in a week rife with them. Finau is solid throughout the bag, but Champ sometimes struggles with his short game. I didn't know well that would work in the alternate-shot format, and it did fade late, but consider me intrigued by their potential together at this event in the future. Grade: B
Collin Morikawa-Matthew Wolff (MC): I thought the team format would free up Wolff to play better golf than he's been playing over the last six months. I was very wrong. This duo combined for just four birdies in Round 1 (all from Morikawa) and shot 77 in Round 2 to badly miss the cut. It's meaningless for Morikawa (who has been playing fine) but one more red flag in Wolff's professional trajectory. Also, I thought this swing comparison was really interesting. I'm not smart enough to draw any detailed conclusions, but it's very clear that something is different than it was, and maybe that is at least part of what has led to his downfall (of the top 150 golfers in the world, nobody has been worse over the last six months) off the tee. Grade: D