Last Friday, competitors at the Zurich Classic awakened to a front-page story in The Times-Picayune under the headline a charmed year. The story detailed the blockbuster success of New Orleans's Jazz Fest, which follows the city's already having hosted a couple of other big-time parties, the BCS championship game and the Final Four. The golf tournament being played on the outskirts of town didn't rate a mention in the article, but the event's upgraded fortunes mirrors the revival of post-Katrina New Orleans, which last year raked in $5.5 billion in tourist spending, an alltime record.
The New Orleans Tour stop dates to 1938, and this year it enjoyed its best field in recent memory, headlined by the man of the moment, Bubba Watson (page 16), the defending champ who was teeing it up for the first time since his game-changing Masters victory propelled him to fourth in the World Ranking. Also on hand were Luke Donald (No. 2), Steve Stricker (7th), Justin Rose (10th), Webb Simpson (14th), Graeme McDowell (18th) and Keegan Bradley (20th), to say nothing of Hall of Famer Ernie Els and fan favorites such as Rickie Fowler and his polar opposite in comportment, John Daly.
The folks at Zurich deserve much of the credit. Since the global insurance company became as title sponsor in 2005, the purse has swelled from $5.1 million to $6.4 million, one of the fattest on Tour, and top players, signed by Zurich as "ambassadors," have been lured with de facto appearance fees. (The agents for Bradley, Donald, Fowler, McDowell, Rose, Ben Crane and Camilo Villegas were unable to comment as they were too busy calculating their commissions.)
Katrina played a factor too. The 2005 tournament was the first to be played at the TPC Louisiana, and the Pete Dye design received mixed reviews, to put it politely. Four months later the course was trashed by the hurricane, giving Dye an unexpected mulligan. When the course reopened for the 2007 event, the TPC was more playable and interesting, and it has grown on the players, whose collective mood is greatly influenced by their ability to make putts. "These are without a doubt some of the purest greens we see all year," said Stuart Appleby, who finished 45th last week.
But with apologies to winner Jason Dufner, the star of the week was the host city. New Orleans is the kind of town you either love or loathe, and it has a loyal following among the more adventurous Tour players. One attraction is cut-rate hotel rooms at the downtown Harrah's Casino. "I like to gamble, so I'm at the casino quite a bit," says Colt Knost. "A bunch of us play." But not necessarily well. "I think most guys have been dinged up this week," adds Knost.
Says Matt Every, "I enjoy watching my friends lose because I like seeing their reaction. They won't get nervous over a putt for $200,000, but they'll lose their lid over a $50 hand of blackjack."
On Monday and Tuesday the tournament organizes well-attended player excursions to cast for prized redfish, and Zurich has even done the unthinkable: "This is the one Wednesday pro-am guys look forward to playing," says Troy Matteson. The pros are paired with three chops instead of the usual four, which helps the pace of play and allows for more time to linger at the gourmet food stations that dot the course. If it's possible to walk five miles and still gain a few pounds, this is the day. The chargrilled oysters on the 10th tee, courtesy of Drago's Seafood Restaurant, were the consensus choice for this year's most scrumptious snack. During the week of the Zurich, eating is a competitive sport, and tournament staffers arrange for players to get the most sought-after tables in town. On Thursday night the tourney hosts a party at Acme Oyster House, a French Quarter favorite. "It's so crowded you can't get a table," says Matteson. "A bunch of us hang out at the bar. It's pretty rare for the guys to socialize like that during a tournament week. It's fun to have that kind of camaraderie."
On Friday the Jazz Fest kicked off, and the players have access to special shuttles and VIP tickets, which were particularly handy this year with a spate of big names that included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Al Green, Cee Lo and more than a hundred other acts representing every conceivable genre.
For all the revelry New Orleans offers, its ongoing posthurricane recovery gives the week its gravitas. Tour players get glimpses of the city's evolution during their crosstown drives to the TPC. "The first year after Katrina it was like a war zone," says Appleby. "Now you can see how much has been cleaned up and rebuilt. The change is amazing. This tournament pours a lot of money into the community, so it's pretty cool for us to play a small part in the city's recovery."
With New Orleans's increasingly becoming a must-play event, the balance of power on the PGA Tour schedule is shifting. The post-Augusta, pre--U.S. Open stretch used to be defined by the back-to-back Wells Fargo Championship and the Players. But Donald, Rose, Stricker, Els and, most important, Watson are among the big names who are skipping this week's Wells Fargo, something unthinkable only a few years ago. "This tournament is great preparation for the Players," says Rose. "This course reminds me a lot of Sawgrass. A lot of tee shots have the same visuals. It's the same conditions, same grasses, same greens, same designer, same style, so if you're going to play only two of these three tournaments, it makes sense to me to skip Quail Hollow."