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Zurich Classic Preview: Can Jon Rahm And Ryan Palmer Defend Title At TPC Louisiana?

(CBS Miami) -- The Zurich Classic of New Orleans was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. But the PGA Tour returns to TPC Louisiana this week for what's become one of the game's more unique events. Rather than 18 holes of individual play for four days, golfers pair up to play two rounds of best-ball and two rounds of alternate shot.

The tournament will start with the best-ball format. That means each teammate plays each hole, and the team records the better of the two outcomes. The second round will feature the alternate-shot format. One player on a team tees off, and the other plays the next shot from where the first ends up. The teammates alternate shots until holing the ball and then record the total score. The two players on a team alternate tee shots. Saturday returns to best-ball, and Sunday will be alternate shot again. A field of 80 teams plays the first two rounds, with 33 teams making the cut to play on the weekend.

"You'll see a lot of low scores during the best-ball rounds, the first and third," said Andrew Catalon, who will be the host in the 18th tower for this weekend's action on CBS. "It's a little bit more difficult to make birdies during alternate shot, because it's harder for the players to get into a good flow as they would playing their own ball in the best-ball format. So I think it really puts an importance on going low in the first and third rounds, when you're playing your own ball and you're putting your best score on the card."

The field features many of the game's best paired up in interesting combinations. Among them are four of the world's top 10 players and seven of the top 20. That includes third-ranked Jon Rahm, who will be once again paired with Ryan Palmer. The two won the 2019 event with a total score of 26-under par. Collin Morikawa, ranked right behind Rahm, joins forces with Matthew Wolff, another young gun. The fifth-ranked Xander Schauffele teams up with 10th-ranked Patrick Cantlay.

"[The field] looks great, according to Catalon, "And you see some neat things as well, teams where guys grew up together, played at the same college together, friends for a long time. There's different and unique storylines as to how the teams are formed, and I think that's a great aspect of this event as well."

Given the format, picking the best partner means picking the right partner. As Catalon asked "what team can work together in alternate shot? What team has a good strategy, which certainly comes into play a lot this week? So it might not be necessarily the hottest player on the golf course, it's which team can really put it all together."

The Rahm-Palmer team accomplished this in 2019. "They really had a good plan," noted Catalon. "They played well, but they really picked each other up. When one was down, the other one came through and made a clutch putt or made a big shot."

This TPC Louisiana course ranks as one of the PGA Tour's easier tracks. Designed by Pete Dye, with some input from 1995 PGA Championship winner Steve Elkington, the player-friendly layout near New Orleans spreads out over 250+ acres of wetlands along the Mississippi River delta. The par-72 course, which now measures 7,341 yards, opened in 2004 and can look a little intimidating from the tee. It is generally flat, with plenty of opportunities for scoring, and, unsurprisingly, gives up plenty of birdies. Weather often factors in, and looks to again, with rain possible on Friday and Saturday

The course features an exciting and interesting combination of closing holes, as the 348-yard, par-4 16th hole leads into the 215-yard, par-3 17th and the 589-yard, par-5 final hole. The signature 18th may be one of the better holes found on the PGA Tour. Golfers need to be consistently good with all their clubs down the stretch.

"On eight holes, you have to deal with water hazards, including the final three," notes Catalon. "On 16, 17 and 18, water comes into play. So that's a big key. You could be coming down the stretch, trying to protect the lead, and then have to factor that water in on those holes. So that's certainly one of the big traits of TPC Louisiana. It's also a Pete Dye course, and anyone who knows golf knows that Pete Dye creates some very challenging shots for these players."

Here are the favorites:

Jon Rahm - Ryan Palmer (15-2)

Rahm and Palmer are the defending champions, and both come in playing decent golf. Rahm tied for fifth at the Masters and ninth at the Players Championship in his last two events. Palmer tied for 34th at the Masters and 17th at the Valero Texas Open in his last two. While Rahm is better off the tee, Palmer is better with the putter.

Xander Schauffele - Patrick Cantlay (8-1)

Schauffele and Cantlay are the only pair featuring two players ranked in the top 10. They are also both among the more consistent and versatile golfers on the Tour. Schauffele tied for third at the Masters and might have won it if not for a costly error near the end. Cantlay, however, missed the cut that week, as well as more recently at the RBC Heritage.

Cameron Smith - Marc Leishman (12-1)

Smith and Jonas Blixt won the Zurich Classic in 2017, the first year of the new format. Ranked 25th, he recently finished in the top 10 at both the Masters and RBC Heritage. Leishman is the 37th-ranked player in the world and tied for fifth at the Masters. These two Australians are both playing well and match up nicely together.

Watch the Zurich Classic Saturday, April 24 and Sunday, April 25, 3:00 - 6:00 PM ET on CBS.

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