[PHOTO: Chris Graythen]

Martin Trainer’s hands left his putter, his eyes closed and his head rolled to the sky, and the cheers that echoed signalled the people saw what they had come to see. The proceedings were exciting and the finish dramatic. One of its central characters was one of the most popular players in the sport. There were multiple stumbles in critical moments – including on the last stroke of the day – and though we don’t need reminders that golf is democratic in its cruelty, those falters are noteworthy because pressure only exists when what’s on the line matters. When Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry were the two left standing, the immediate takeaway was the golf this week was quite good.

And yet it’s worth asking if this is as good as this tournament is going to get.

McIlroy and Lowry defeated Trainer and Chad Ramey in a playoff at TPC Louisiana to capture the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

“Look, it’s disappointing for the lads to finish the way they did,” Lowry said, after the 5 he and McIlroy carded in foursomes play beat Trainer and Ramey’s 6 on the first hole of sudden death. “But we’ve had just the best week. Anytime this man wants to partner with me, I’ll be happy to do so.”

Let’s start with the present, which is McIlroy and Lowry, although to understand how they got here we must go to the past. Over a post-Ryder Cup victory lunch last October filled with adult libations, McIlroy and Lowry decided to join forces for the tour’s lone regular-season teams event. The two quickly put the Hemingway adage of, “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk; that will teach you to keep your mouth shut,” to rest with an opening 61. They survived Friday foursomes with a 70 and came back with a best-ball 64 to earn a spot in the penultimate pairing behind Zac Blair and Patrick Fishburn, and Luke List and Henrik Norlander.

It was another pair in Trainer and Ramey that stole the last-day spotlight, putting together a nine-under 63 in alternate shot to take the clubhouse lead at 25-under with hours to go until the final groups finished. It was a lead they admitted they didn’t think would stand, but then the damnedest thing happened, as all those teams in the final pairings continued to stall as the wind came up. List and Norlander made the turn in two-over and things did not improve on the back nine. Ryan Brehm had a fantastic ball-striking display but partner Mark Hubbard missed a handful of makeable birdie putts and they couldn’t make 4 on the par-5 18th to earn a spot into the playoff. Blair and Fishburn had a share of the lead until the par-3 17th. Blair aired his tee shot to the right, Fishburn flubbed a chip, Blair missed the 25-foot save and Fishburn missed the comebacker. McIlroy and Lowry needed a birdie at the final hole just for the chance at extra holes, which they did thanks to a nifty third from McIlroy and a pure stroke from Lowry.

Though McIlroy and Lowry were fan favourites it wasn’t hard to be sympathetic for Ramey and Trainer, especially since Trainer doesn’t have his tour card and a win would mean two years of job security. Alas, Trainer chunked his third, and when Lowry missed a 10-footer to reopen the door, Trainer’s attempt to tie from seven feet never came close. A nine-under 63 in foursomes is brilliant in itself, to say nothing of the day’s tough conditions, but the life-altering opportunity for Trainer was not to be.

“Just playing it like a normal hole. Doing the best we can,” Trainer said about the final hole. “Obviously golf is hard, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way. We did the best we could and had a chance, and that’s all you can ask for, really.”

Remarkably it’s Lowry’s first PGA Tour win since his Open Championship triumph at Royal Portrush in 2019, and his seventh career professional victory. As for McIlroy, today marked his 25th trophy on the PGA Tour, tying him with Johnny Miller, Tommy Armour and Macdonald Smith for 23rd on the tour’s all-time wins list.

“Yeah, absolutely amazing,” McIlroy said. “I think, yeah, to win any PGA Tour event is very cool, but to do it with one of your closest friends – we’ve known each other for a long, long time, probably like over 20 years, so to think about where we met and where we’ve come from, to be on this stage and do this together, really, really cool journey that we’ve been a part of, and yeah, just awesome to be able to do it alongside this guy.”

No world ranking points are attached to the Zurich Classic, yet with both men well outside the top 30 in the FedEx Cup after so-so starts to the 2024 campaign, their conquest puts them on the right side of the Tour Championship benchmark heading into the second half of the season. Their win was the best-case scenario for the tournament, both its officials and its fans. They were the marquee attraction in a field short of star power and with their Irish backgrounds one of the few pairings that had a built-in storyline that was easy to cheer for. Conversely, what we witnessed today was the Platonic ideal of a tour team event, and that it happened only proved that what is promised is rarely delivered.

The clubs Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry used to win the 2024 Zurich Classic of New Orleans

Since moving to this structure in 2017, the Zurich’s had notable winners in Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, and Cam Smith before he was an Open and Players champion. In that same breath, this year’s lack of recognisable names wasn’t an aberration, and the field – with 80 two-man teams – often features players with limited or no status to fill those spots. This year, one of those players was 65-year-old Russ Cochran, who had not played a PGA Tour event in 11 seasons. Tournaments sandwiched between the Masters and PGA Championship often struggle to attract viable fields, and that truth has only become harder with the RBC Heritage and Wells Fargo Championship earning signature-event designation. The upshot is most of the pairings seem random, with no narrative or fan hook.

Moreover, that TPC Louisiana is not exactly one of the crown jewels of the tour’s rota doesn’t help the tournament’s plight. Nor does lacklustre crowds. The Zurich did have scheduling rivals in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the New Orleans Pelicans hosted an NBA Playoff game on Saturday afternoon. The golf fans that were on the grounds consolidated around McIlroy and Lowry leaving the rest of the course relatively open.

One of the tour’s biggest issues is that the golf mostly looks exactly the same as the golf played the week before, so on that front, kudos for the tour and tournament officials for attempting to inject creativity. That should not be conflated with success. As the PGA Tour continues to re-evaluate its business in the wake of its new equity investment and potential partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, perhaps it’s time for the Zurich’s format to be altered again. It’s no coincidence that, of the many struggles LIV Golf has had in gaining traction with the general public, its team component is chief among them. And the beauty of what’s seen at the Ryder Cup is not just team component but the level of care it conjures, a care that cannot be replicated. The tour knows this, considering its own problems with garnering fanfare for its Presidents Cup.

In golf, two of the most powerful warriors are often patience and time. That was on display today, as McIlroy and Lowry didn’t necessarily make a charge as much as they outlasted their competitors. Perhaps that’s what the Zurich needs, more runway to let its team format grow. Yet to continue to give the Zurich both in hopes it will eventually work could mean waiting for a day that never comes. As for how to improve the Zurich product, this part of the calendar seems ripe for the now-defunct Match Play Championship to be resurrected, allowing for equidistant time between the green jacket and the Wanamaker Trophy.

With continued calls for a mixed tournament between PGA and LPGA stars, this would also be a good juncture rather than resigning it to the silly season. Even though creativity wasn’t the answer with the current format, it’s still the undercurrent the tour needs to ride to get where it needs to go.