AVONDALE — Shortly after taming TPC Lousiana in Thursday’s opening round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer headed over to the Saints practice facility to help coach Sean Payton in the primetime NFL Draft.
Palmer revealed his team’s plans for the evening moments after Spieth had drained a 15-foot birdie putt on the 577-yard, par 5 18th hole for a 6-under 66 and a share of the lead with the team of Kyle Stanley and Ryan Ruffels.
“Their defense needs a little pick up, which I think we all would agree,” said Palmer, who once employed Payton as a caddie at the 2013 Greenbrier Classic in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, then the site of the Saints’ training camp. “Their offense is going to get better and better with the players they’re bringing in. He’s looking at a lot of defense. I’m sure he’s got other ideas that he hasn’t talked about.”
When pressed on a specific player, Palmer minced no words, imploring Payton to mortgage the Saints’ future and take Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the first overall pick. That likely would require the Saints to give up both first-round picks (Nos. 11 and 32) and much, much more.
“Go Aggies,” a beaming Palmer said referrring to his college alma mater.
“I’m going Dallas Cowboys,” Spieth said, fueling the fire between two native Texans.
The teams of Spieth/Palmer and Stanley/Ruffels hold a one-shot lead over the teams of K.J. Choi/Charlie Wi, Ben Martin/Ben Crane, Jonas Blixt/Cameron Smith and Charley Hoffman/Nick Watney at 5-under 67. Another four teams stood at 4-under 68, including former U-High standout Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay and Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly.
The new 72-hole format at the Zurich Classic features 80 two-man teams playing alternate shot in the first and third rounds and best ball in the second and fourth rounds.
Play resumes Friday at 7 a.m. Golfers can expect less favorable playing conditions Friday with winds expected to blow through the Pete Dye layout between 15 and 25 mph and gusting upwards of 30.
“It was huge to score well today; it was huge,” Spieth said. “It looks like we might get a good end of the draw. It looks like the wind might pick up tomorrow afternoon.
“But alternate shot format in these conditions, anything 3-under or so is a solid score. So to grab a few extra and obviously be in pole position is fantastic.”
The unheralded team of Stanley and Ruffels stumbled on their finishing hole or they might be in sole possession of the first-round lead.
Despite dropping a stroke on the par-3 ninth, Stanley/Ruffels completed the morning wave of the 80-team format at 6-under 66, ahead of other higher-profile tandems such as Rickie Fowler/Jason Day (71) and Henrik Stenson/Justin Rose (72).
That alone makes Stanley and Ruffels good. But who are these guys?
Stanley, 29, hails from Gig Harbor, Washington, with one PGA Tour win. He is ranked No. 173 in the world. Ruffels, who turns 19 Saturday, is a native of Victoria, Australia. He is ranked No. 543 in the world. They hit it off while competing in the 2014 Australian Masters.
When it came time to pick a partner for the Zurich Classic, Stanley thought of his teenage friend from Down Under.
“It was nice of (Stanley) to take me under his wing and invite me to play with him,” Ruffels said.
“He was 16 when I first met him,” said Stanley, who’s playing on a sponsor’s exemption in New Orleans this week. “I was really impressed; he’s a really nice kid and a great player. I thought he’d be a good fit. He hits the ball really long and is a good putter, so not a whole lot of weaknesses in his game.”
Stanley and Ruffels teamed for eight birdies in Thursday’s alternate ball format, including four straight on their outward nine on holes 10 through 13, and two bogeys.
“We decided a couple of days ago to go out and play boring golf, and for the most part, that’s what we did,” Ruffels said. “We hit a lot of greens and we were able to roll a few (putts) in.
“Strangely, we matched up quite nicely.”