Kyle Stanley, Ryan Ruffels on top at Zurich Classic as field embraces alternate shot

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Kyle Stanley, Ryan Ruffels on top at Zurich Classic as field embraces alternate shot

PGA Tour

Kyle Stanley, Ryan Ruffels on top at Zurich Classic as field embraces alternate shot

AVONDALE, La. – Australian Ryan Ruffels may be only 18 years old, but he has played golf all across the globe and is mature well beyond his years. That said, prior to Thursday’s opening round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, he’d never in his life teed it up in a tournament utilizing the foursomes (alternate-shot) format.

Hey, that’s OK. Ben Crane is 41, and he’d never done so, either. Crane’s partner in the team event, Ben Martin, recalls playing foursomes once – that’s right, once – at age 10, with his dad, at his home club in South Carolina.

In order to spice up a tournament that has struggled to land big names during a sleepy portion of the PGA Tour season, Zurich this year transitioned to a two-man team event, and the move has infused the championship with new energy. It is the PGA Tour’s first team event in nearly 36 years, dating to the 1981 Walt Disney World National Team Championship in Orlando, Fla.

A new format has sparked new energy from the standpoint of live spectators and television viewers starved to see golf outside of the routine, 72-hole medal play box, as well as new energy from a player base that has embraced the change. Find a buddy and let it fly. Six of the top nine players in the world teed it up at TPC Louisiana on Thursday.

“I think it was a great idea for the event, get some more excitement,” Martin said.

But it’s team golf, and it’s different, and rare, too, staged on unfamiliar turf. Playing alternate-shot golf means a totally different mindset for golfers who usually show up in town needing to think of nobody but themselves.

Part of the weight that comes with standing beside a teammate and playing team golf is a player’s responsibility to take good care of his partner. You don’t leave your partner deep in the trees, or short-side him with poorly thought-out approach shots, and you don’t leave 6-foot comebackers on the greens.

“We’re trying not to screw up,” said Kevin Kisner, who shot 70 alongside Scott Brown, a fellow member at Palmetto Country Club in Aiken, S.C. The two have played hundreds of rounds together. “That’s basically the hardest part,” he said.

So Crane, one of the more laid-back and polite players on Tour, decided to push past all the niceties early on.

“You can put me anywhere,” he told Martin after the two had tip-toed their way across egg shells to an opening bogey to start their day. “I’m looking forward to getting out of jail … challenge me! That was the attitude we had, and it was the right one.”

After the opening bogey, the two were terrific. Martin and Crane shot 5-under 67, which was one shot behind the up-and-coming Ruffels and his partner, American Kyle Stanley.

Ruffels and Stanley met in late 2014 at the Australian Masters, with Ruffels, then only 16, playing alongside Stanley in a weekend round. The American walked away impressed by Ruffels’ talents. With Zurich having moved to a team format, and with Ruffels having played well at TPC Louisiana (T-20) on a sponsor exemption a year ago, Stanley reached out and invited him to return as his partner. The two worked quite nicely together, aiming to play “boring” golf – fairways and greens – but in reality turning in a spectacular foursomes round.

They made eight birdies on the day.

Foursomes is a game that still is played in the U.K., where one member hits off the tee and another stands at the ready somewhere in the vicinity of the landing area. A game of foursomes can be played in two hours (not quite the pace Thursday at Zurich), leaving quality time for the most important hole of all – the 19th.

Asked about the foursomes format leading into the Ryder Cup last fall, Rickie Fowler said, “If I go play golf, I want to play the whole golf course. I don’t want to skip half the shots.”

But this week, Fowler, who shot 70 alongside Jason Day, acknowledged it’s his favorite format in team competition. Because a competitor is only playing every-other shot, it makes one bear down and concentrate more intensely than normal.

“I feel it just brings out the best of me as a player,” Fowler said.

Ruffels has taken to the format nicely. He and Stanley played nine holes together on Tuesday afternoon, and decided to try alternate-shot. He found it to be great fun.

Thursday morning, the team deemed that Ruffels would tee off on TPC Louisiana’s even holes, mostly because he’s a longer hitter than Stanley and it was key to have him hitting drives on the two longer par-5 holes, Nos. 2 and 18. Ruffels, beginning the day on the 400-yard, par-4 10th, yanked his opening tee shot with a 2-iron left into the trees. But here’s where the team game can suddenly lift both players. Stanley found a gap up high and hit a magnificent second from 149 yards that caught the top-left portion of the green, leaving Ruffels 19 feet from the hole. And Ruffels converted the putt. Birdie.

“I found it quite easy,” Ruffels, who has been playing on PGA Tour Latinoamerica, said of the format. “Whether it’s good or bad, you don’t have to worry about the next shot. So you kind of freewheel and go, ‘Yeah, I want to hit one good here, but if I don’t, Kyle is going to deal with it.’

“It was good fun. It was easy. We didn’t put a whole lot of pressure on each other, and we made an agreement that we weren’t going to say ‘Sorry.’ ”

He said the most difficult part was knowing what to do on those holes where he’d stuff an approach to within 10 feet of the flagstick, then not even walk up to mark his ball.

“You don’t have to do anything, so I’d sit there twiddling my thumbs,” he said.

For Ruffels, whose haul in two Latin America stops in Argentina and Colombia earlier this year ($4,594) barely covered his cost of traveling there, this week’s operative word may be “Thanks,” not sorry. Stanley may have extended the invitation, but Ruffels needed a sponsor exemption to play because he is not a PGA Tour member, and Zurich granted him one. The stakes for Ruffels and many others here in Nola are huge, and potentially life-altering: Each member of the winning team will receive a two-year exemption, earn 400 FedEx Cup points and collect more than $1 million in earnings.

Young Ryan Ruffels, a player filled with promise, would be on his way.

The youngest player in the field, who turns 19 Saturday, didn’t wish to get too far ahead, but he recognizes the week’s importance. Even if he were to earn enough to make his way to the year-end Web.com Tour Finals it would be a significant step. The importance of any tournament start anywhere on the globe does not get taken lightly.

“You know what the possibilities are and stuff,” Ruffels said. “Every week is an opportunity, whether it’s down in Latin America, down on the Web, or whether it’s here. … And that’s how I’m approaching it.”

He’s off to a terrific start.

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