AVONDALE, La. (AP) — There’s something about the rhythm of life in the Big Easy that appeals to Billy Horschel, who acknowledges that he can be a little “hyper” for even his own liking on the PGA Tour.
Horschel earned his first PGA Tour victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans a year ago. It remains his lone triumph at golf’s highest level, though he isn’t shy about saying that he likes his chances of defending his title.
“Something about this city just puts me at a sense of ease,” Horschel said, adding that he’s found New Orleans to have the best dining options of any tour stop. “We go out to dinner pretty much every night and we don’t talk about golf much. We just talk about other things and we’re having a good time.”
Horschel has been disappointed with his form lately. In his last seven tournaments (excluding the Accenture Match Play Championship), he has missed three cuts and hasn’t finished higher than 37th. This week, though, he has been greeted by larger-than-life images of himself as he arrives at the TPC Louisiana.
At first glance, Horschel’s toughest competition this week appears to include 2013-14 tour winners Patrick Reed, Kevin Stadler, Chris Kirk and Matt Every, along with Master’s runner-up Jonas Blixt. Then there is a host of established tour players — a number of them past winners — including Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
“This is probably the first time I’ve been a favorite this year,” Fowler said. “It’s nice to be back up kind of near the top where people actually are talking about me and I’m not off on the weekends doing my own thing. … I definitely expect myself to be in contention. But it’s golf; anything can happen.”
The field will not include a pair of recent Zurich champions: Bubba Watson and Jason Dufner. But Zurich has a history of producing champions who’ve never before won on the tour.
Last year, Horschel became the sixth player in the last nine years to capture his maiden PGA Tour triumph in New Orleans. Horschel said he sees Canada’s Graham DeLaet among the prime candidates to continue to that trend.
“It still shocks me he hasn’t won because he had such a great year last year,” Horschel said.
Then he added, “I have a feeling that you’re not going to see a maiden winner this week. I think you’re going to see someone who’s won before, and maybe that’s me.”
This marks the ninth year New Orleans’ event has been held at the par-72, 7,425-yard TPC Louisiana, a Pete Dye-designed course carved out of a cypress swamp just southwest of the city. This year’s purse is $6.8 million, with the winner taking home $1,224,000.
Horschel’s 268 total last year was the best score since the tournament moved to the TPC Louisiana from English Turn. His final-round 64, which ended with him sinking a 27-foot birdie putt to clinch the title, tied for the best single-round score.
This year the field includes a New Orleans native who took an unusual path to his first PGA Tour appearance this week. Neal Ajubita, 26, quit competitive golf after high school and didn’t even bother to try out for the team at Clemson, where he majored in Parks and Recreation, with a concentration in professional golf management.
“I thought I was going to be a club pro and shake hands with members and do that type of thing for the rest of my life,” Ajubita said.
But when college ended, Ajubita realized he “just wasn’t done.”
He has been playing on the Adams Tour — off and on — since 2011, traveling long distances by car to tournaments and living on a tight food and lodging budget. Shoulder surgery to repair for a torn labrum hindered his return to competitive golf, but he earned a place in the Zurich field by winning the 2013 Gulf States PGA section championship last September.
“This is a pretty big step up,” Ajubita said. “Here you get treated like a king and it’s super cool. I love it.”
Notes: Fred Funk withdrew Wednesday. The 57-year old Funk has been working through knee injuries in recent years and it was knee soreness again that led him to pull out. He was replaced in the field by Doug LaBelle II.
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