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Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel lead Zurich Classic, but expect a wild race to the finish


AVONDALE, La. – Tony Finau and Cameron Champ have been flipping a coin on the first tee all week to decide who leads things off and said they likely would do so again on Sunday when the format at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans flips back to alternate-shot in the team competition.

Might as well flip a coin to decide who is going to win the title, too. There are 16 teams within four strokes of the 54-hole leaders, the South African pair of Louis Oosthuiazen and Charl Schwartzel, who “dovetailed” on Saturday to a best-ball score of 9-under 63 and a 54-hole total of 19-under 197 at TPC Louisiana.

Schwartzel led the way early as Oosthuizen didn’t make a birdie until pouring in a 19-foot birdie putt at No. 11. But once his putter warmed up the team birdied six of the last eight holes, including the final three. Oosthuizen provided the exclamation point at the par-3 17th, canning a bomb from 34 feet, the only birdie at the hole all day.

“Now and then you get a putt like that where you feel like you’re actually going to make it, you stand over it and just need to hit a good stroke,” Oosthuizen said. “It was one of those.”

But the veteran South Africans know that tomorrow is another day and a more challenging format, where birdies will be more scarce, especially if the wind blows again. Oosthuizen has never won on American soil and is winless on the PGA Tour since the 2010 British Open, while Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, hasn’t hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour since the 2016 Valspar Championship. Could they follow in the footsteps of Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama on the PGA Tour and Lydia Ko on the LPGA by ending lengthy victory droughts tomorrow?

“I think anyone within four shots of the lead has got a chance with the format that it is tomorrow,” Oosthuizen said. “It’s going to be tough. We need to play really well.”

Indeed, there is a lot of golf still to be played before a team gets to slip on the championship belts. But to hear Schwartzel tell it, the tougher the better for them.

“The more difficult it is, the better we both play, so the format for tomorrow in a way suits us, and if we execute the shots the way we see it, we’ll have a good chance,” he said.

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Hot on their heels include the team of Australians Cameron Smith, who won the team title in 2017, and Marc Leishman, who showed up to the first team wearing a mullet wig to match that of his partner and resembled the hairdo of competitor Pat Perez who was playing in the same group.

The first-tee hijinks wasn’t Leishman’s only contribution on Saturday. He went to the range after Friday’s round and realized his setup was too open. With his wedges dialed in once again, Leishman made five birdies including all three for their team on the second nine en route to a second round of 63 in the four-ball format.

“I was happy just being there and watching Leish play good golf,” said Smith, who chipped in at the third hole but didn’t make a birdie after the eighth. “It was good to see.”

On a day when six teams posted 63, Cameron Champ and Tony Finau, co-leaders after 36 holes, managed only to shoot 5-under 67, but a birdie at the last lifted them within one stroke of the lead heading into the final round.  as Champ was held to one birdie on the day.

“When I was a little off, he picked me up; when he was a little off, I picked him up,” Finau said. “That’s the essence of team golf.”

Bubba Watson, who won here in 2011 as an individual, and partner Scottie Scheffler, who is still looking for his maiden win on the PGA Tour, and the Norwegian duo of Viktor Hovland and Kris Ventura are each two strokes back in a tie for fourth. Hovland and Ventura struggled to shoot 68 in best ball, but were encouraged by the fact that they tied for the low round of the day in the alternate-shot format on Friday (68). Their plan for Sunday?

“I would just say play stress-free golf,” Hovland said. “Boring golf is good.”

Defending champions Jon Rahm and Ryan Palmer (T-9) are among the group four back, and shot 7-under 65 in the alternate-shot format in 2019. Finau predicted a score in the 60s would probably be good enough for any of the top contenders. He, too, is trying to end a winless streak dating to 2016. How meaningful would it be to win a team event versus an individual title for him?

“It would be quite special,” Finau said. “I don’t know too many guys that can say that they’ve won team events because there’s only one out here. So it almost would be I think even more special to win, and to win with this guy would be really special.”

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