For the second year in a row, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans features three of the world’s top 10 players in Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose.
The difference: this time, the world’s No. 1 player will be in the 156-man field for the $7 million event that begins Thursday at TPC Louisiana in Avondale.
Justin Day, who played here a year ago when he ranked sixth in the world, ascended to the top spot five weeks ago with a victory at the WGC-Dell Match Play and will likely hold steady regardless of what the 28-year-old Australian does this week.
Day will be joined by No. 5 Fowler and Rose, the defending Zurich Classic champion who is ranked 10th. Rose won a year ago by one stroke over Cameron Tringale with a course-record 22-under 266 total.
Those three are the headliners for a field that will be shooting for the $1.26 million check that will go to the winner Sunday afternoon.
Other top names include Charley Hoffman, Hunter Mahan, Billy Horschel, Chris Kirk, Jamie Donaldson, Daniel Berger and Smylie Kauffman.
Berger is the reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year and Kaufman, a former LSU star who played in the final pairing with Jordan Spieth at the Masters earlier this month, is a candidate to win the award this year.
Day shared the 54-hole lead with Rose last year and eventually tied for fourth at 19-under while Rose surged to the front with a birdie-birdie finish — which included a clutch 10-foot birdie at the difficult par 3 17th — to edge Tringale and Boo Weekley, who finished two shots back in third place.
Day returns this year to take another swing at the title with two wins under his belt this season and a total of six victories in his last 13 PGA Tour starts.
He comes in refreshed after taking a week off to spend some time with his family. That came following a five-week stretch in which he played four tournaments with an extra week of preparation for the Masters.
“The week off that I had, I did a lot of stuff in the gym that I was happy with,” Day, the 2015 PGA champion, said. “Then, I also practiced very hard. I put a lot of work in on my long game.”
Day had to work extra hard because he played in so many tournaments with little rest, which he said allowed some bad things to creep into his game.
“I was thinking about other things rather than going through my normal process,” he said. “It takes time to get back into the swing and back into the smoothness of your pre-shot routine.”
Fowler took some quality time off as well after missing the cut at the Masters, vacationing in The Bahamas with three other young guns — Spieth, Kaufman and Justin Thomas.
“I mean, obviously, it was nice just having a good time with some really good buddies,” Fowler said. “It was nice to be able to get away, kind of recharge and reset, especially with the stretch we have coming up.”
As a result, Fowler said, it’ll be back to business Thursday with the Zurich Classic to be followed by the Wells Fargo Championship, The Players and a month later the U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, Rose comes in looking to become only the fifth player to repeat as champion in the New Orleans event. He won here just two weeks after tying for second in the Masters.
Like Fowler, Rose hasn’t played since tying for 10th at the Masters. He carded 19 birdies at Augusta National but finished at 1-over while fellow Englishman Danny Willett won with a score of 5-under.
“There was definitely plenty of horsepower,” Rose said. “I just needed to do a better job of keeping it on the track — in a way. I felt good by my game.
“That leads me to believe everything is in good shape and I’ve just got to tighten up a few things. I’m probably, in a sense, a lot more consistent this year and more comfortable with my game coming to this tournament than last year.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.