Strong field to challenge for Zurich of New Orleans title

Jason Dufner watches his chip to the 18th green in the final round of the Zurich Classic at the TPC Louisiana course in Avondale, La., Sunday, April 29, 2012. Jason Duffner won the Zurich Classic defeating Ernie Els in a playoff. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Jason Dufner watches his chip to the 18th green in the final round of the Zurich Classic at the TPC Louisiana course in Avondale, La., Sunday, April 29, 2012. Jason Duffner won the Zurich Classic defeating Ernie Els in a playoff. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

With defending champion Jason Dufner as well as nine winners of golf’s majors in a 156-man field, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans will begin a week-long run Monday at TPC Louisiana in Avondale.

The Fore!Kids Foundation will again stage the event, which features a $6.6 million purse with $1.152 million going to the winner, starting with a pro-am at 11 a.m. Monday at TPC Louisiana.

A second pro-am at TPC Louisiana and the fifth annual L’Auberge of Baton Rouge Pro-Am at University Club, are on Wednesday’s schedule as the lead-ins to the 72-hole PGA Tour event that begins Thursday.

Dufner returns to defend his title after winning last year’s Zurich Classic title in a two-hole playoff with Ernie Els, who 21/2 months later won the fourth major of his Hall of Fame career at the British Open.

The victory for the 36-year-old Dufner, a former Auburn golfer, was his first on the PGA Tour and it came just one week before marrying long-time girlfriend Amanda Boyd.

The win in New Orleans served as a springboard for Dufner, however, as a month later he began a torrid three-tournament stretch in which he won the HP Byron Nelson Championship, finished second in the Crowne Plaza Invitational and tied for fourth at the U.S. Open.

Dufner went on to finish fourth on the PGA Tour money list with $4.869 million and earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Els, who returned to New Orleans last spring after a decade-long absence, is also back after coming up short in the playoff with Dufner when they tied for first at 19-under-par.

In addition to Els, other major winners in the field are Bubba Watson, Retief Goosen, Keegan Bradley, Lucas Glover, Trevor Immelman, Mike Weir, Justin Leonard and former LSU All-American David Toms.

Watson and Toms are former winners in New Orleans with Toms taking the title in 2001 and Watson in 2011.

The field includes seven of the world’s top 30 players going into the RBC Heritage this week — Justin Rose (fourth), Bradley (12th), Watson (14th), Dufner (19th), Nick Watney (23rd), Els (24th) and Rickie Fowler (30th).

Amateur Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old from China who tried to qualify for the U.S. Open in New Orleans last spring and made the cut in the Masters last week, will also play on a sponsor’s exemption.

After shooting a 1-over 73 in the first round at Augusta National, Guan fell back and finished 58th with a 12-over 300 score.

Toms will be joined in the field by at least four players with Louisiana ties — former LSU All-American and NCAA individual champion John Peterson, former University High star Patrick Reed, former Tulane standout Michael Thompson and Ponchatoula resident Jake Narro.

Peterson, who has status on the Web.com Tour, and Reed, who earned his PGA Tour card in the fall after Monday qualifying for six events last season, will be playing the Zurich Classic for the second time.

Peterson didn’t make the cut last year, while Reed, after earning his spot in New Orleans, tied for 24th and collected $51,840. He’s made the cut in five of 12 events this year after making it at the RBC Heritage and has $267,746 in earnings.

Thompson won his first PGA Tour event at the Honda Classic in March and Narro, the pro at Oak Knoll Country Club in Hammond, qualified for the second straight year as the Gulf States PGA Section champion.

The deadline to enter the tournament was at 4 p.m. Friday, but players who finish in the top 10 plus ties at the RBC Heritage on Sunday can get into the New Orleans event if they choose.

Notes

The final four spots in the field will be filled Monday through an open qualifier at the Toms-designed LaTour Golf Club in Mathews. … Also on the schedule Monday is a youth clinic at noon on the TPC Louisiana driving range. … Many of the pros for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans will play a practice round Tuesday. There is no admission charge on Tuesday.