Avondale: One year ago, Jason Dufner's victory at the Zurich Classic made him the fifth player in the last eight years to celebrate his maiden PGA Tour triumph in New Orleans. This weekend, Dufner will try to become the first repeat winner in the Big Easy since Carlos Franco in 2000. But even if Dufner remains beset by the inconsistency that has kept him out of the top 10 this season, the odds of yet another first-time winner at the Zurich seem increasingly slim.
Dufner is one of eight former winners of the New Orleans tour stop who are back at TPC Louisiana, a Pete Dye-designed course carved out of cypress swamp just southwest of the city, and home to the Zurich Classic since 2005. In fact, he'll tee off with two of them - Bubba Watson and Nick Watney - in Thursday's first round.
"In the last three or four years, it seems like this has become a great spot for premier players to come," Dufner said. "This even is becoming more and more of a place that guys enjoy coming to play and one of the premier events other than the majors and the World Golf events."
More than 60 players in the Zurich Classic Field already have a PGA Tour victory to their name. Four of them have already won events this year: John Merrick (Northern Trust Open), Michael Thompson (Honda Classic), D.A. Points (Houston Open) and Scott Brown (Puerto Rico Open).
Some of the other more accomplished players in the field include Justin Rose, who is No. 4 in the world ranking; 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley and "The Big Easy" himself, Ernie Els, who has 19 career wins and was the runner up in the Zurich Classic in a playoff a year ago. The former winners in New Orleans who've returned include Jason Bohn (2010), Jerry Kelly (2009), Andres Romero (2008), K.J. Choi (2002) and David Toms (2001).
"The tournament is getting stronger and stronger," Rose said. "The golf course has gotten better and better every single year, it feels like. I think I'm slowly learning how to play it." The course appeared to be in impeccable shape when the tournament's charity pro-am began Wednesday morning - before the arrival of driving rain, lightning and even a severe weather warning that had authorities briefly evacuating the course and tents used by media, tournament staff and VIPs. Nearly 2 inches of rain fell in the middle of the day, but officials said the course drains well and was expected to be fine by the time the first round started Thursday morning. Even the pro-am resumed after 3 p.m.
For about a half-hour after spectators and players alike were shepherded into permanent structures, the main club house was jammed. Some players retreated into the locker room, but others remained in the dining area or pro shop, which is normally off limits to the typical spectator during the tournament.
Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old amateur whose world fame skyrocketed after he made the cut at the Masters, remained with family and friends at a table in the corner of the restaurant and exchanged handshakes with a couple fans who noticed him. The eight-grader had planned to return to China after the Masters, but then received a late-hour invitation to play in New Orleans, where he'd spent a month last summer working on his game at the invitation of a family friend who lives in the area.
Guan arrived in New Orleans right after the Masters, and last weekend helped out at a youth golf clinic at Lakewood Golf Club, which hosted the area's PGA event from 1963 to 1988, and where past winners included all-time greats Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. Now Guan is expected to have a sizable local following.
"I want to enjoy the week like the Masters and hopefully make the cut," Guan said. "If not, it's still a great experience." Watson, who grew up about a three-hour's drive from New Orleans in the Florida panhandle, considers the Zurich his home tournament, and his group was already drawing a number of spectators during the pro-am, though many seemed more intrigued by his playing partners, brothers Willie and Jase Robertson of the Louisiana-based TV series, "Duck Dynasty."
In 2012, the Zurich Classic was the first tournament Watson played after winning the Masters and becoming one of golf's biggest draws. He said he only played the tournament last year because he felt obliged as the then-defending champ, and because it is one of the tournaments his mother traditionally makes the trip from Pensacola to see. "I was tired," Watson said of last year's Zurich, in which he finished tied for 18th.
This time, Watson said he is "pumped up to play this golf course." He was also appeared rather loose while exchanging lighthearted jabs with the Robertsons. When asked if he ever considered experimenting with the abundant facial hair for which the "Duck Dynasty" men are known, Watson cracked, "No, I look way too good to cover up my face. They have to cover up their face to be on TV."
Although Watson has yet to finish in the top three this year and tied for 50th at the Masters, he has two top-10 finishes and figures his unorthodox swing isn't all that far off from where he wants it to be. "I've been playing well. Just some breaks haven't went my way," Watson said. "All in all, I know that I have the game and the ability to do it."
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