Belgium's Pieters rising in rankings, heading to Rio

By Associated PressMarch 19, 2016, 7:41 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Thomas Pieters has a game that travels. Coming from Belgium and its limited golf heritage, he didn't have much of a choice.

Jordan Spieth once found that out for himself.

Pieters already had established his credentials by winning the NCAA title at Riviera as a sophomore at Illinois in 2012. That summer, he was in Ireland for the European Amateur and had to cross seven time zones to get to Denver in time for the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills. It was such a tight squeeze that Pieters didn't have time to see the golf course.

Despite severe jet lag, Pieters managed to get into a 17-man playoff for the final 14 spots, which advanced to match play.

''I was the 11th seed,'' Spieth said. ''I don't know one name of anybody else in the playoff other than Thomas. If you're paired against someone in the first round or the final round it doesn't matter, but he was someone you'd like to wait until later on to play. So whoever was the third guy to get in from the playoff, that's who I was going to get. And of course, it was Thomas.''

On the opening hole, Spieth was in good shape in the rough just left of the green.

''Thomas hooks it off the downslope of the No. 2 tee box into the rough,'' Spieth said. ''Then, he hits this flop shot that lands next to where my ball is, takes a hop in the rough, rolls down and goes in for a 2. The first hole. One down. Thanks for coming.''

It wasn't over that quickly. It was a tight battle to the end until Pieters won on the 18th.

Spieth finished telling the story, smiled and said quietly: ''He's good, man. He's really good.''

It might not be long before the rest of golf figures that out about Pieters, a 6-foot-6 24-year-old with a powerful swing.

Coming off two straight missed cuts and opening with a 73 in Thailand, Pieters bounced back with rounds of 66-66-68 last week to finish third. It moved him up to No. 56 in the world, getting him into the Dell Match Play and giving him a reasonable shot at qualifying for his first Masters.

He also is virtually a lock to be Belgium's top player when golf returns to the Olympics this summer in Rio. Pieters was a big fan of the Olympics growing up in Antwerp, whether it was watching the Dream Team (he gave up basketball for golf), track or swimming.

Golf wasn't even considered for the Olympics when Pieters first fell in love with the game at 5, after his parents picked it up during a holiday in South Africa.

Belgium doesn't have a long history in the sport. Its greatest player was Flory Van Donck, twice a British Open runner-up who won national opens across Europe. Nicolas Colsaerts rose to fame a few years ago when he played for Europe in the Ryder Cup and single-handedly beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in a fourballs match with Lee Westwood playing the role as spectator.

Pieters could be next.

''He's your prototypical modern player - big, strong and hits it a mile,'' said Mike Small, the Illinois golf coach who saw enough of Pieters on video to recruit him. ''He learned to play golf on a driving range. I went to watch him play a few tournaments and thought, 'This kid has talent.' The golf swing was there. He just needed to play golf. I don't think he ever broke 70 in a tournament until he came to college. Two years later, he won a national championship.''

Pieters learned to play at Witbos Golf Club, a 13-hole course and the only one close to his house.

''Has anybody heard of a 13-hole course?'' he said with a laugh. ''It was very unusual. You would hit over these buildings. We had six or seven par 3s. But I loved it. I grew up putting on poor greens and we didn't have a chipping green. We only had one bunker, but I'd be in that bunker until dark. I wanted to get good.''

What attracted Pieters to golf was no different from other players: Everything was on him. It took him until he was 14 to give up soccer and basketball, and then he went to a boarding school funded by the Golf Association of Flanders.

He nearly didn't last long at Illinois, because of the culture shock more than his golf game.

''His eyes were open so much to American life,'' said Scott Langley, an Illini teammate. ''It's one thing going to college as a young kid from high school, totally different when you're coming from another country. The adjustment was so big.''

Pieters was so homesick he almost didn't return for the second semester. He was 18 and far from home. He struggled with English, which he had learned from grade school and watching ''Friends.''

''It's tough when you're not speaking the language perfect and not being able to ask questions in Dutch,'' he said. ''Coach helped me out. He was like a dad to me. But food and all that stuff, it was different. I didn't like Chipotle until later. My teammates ate there every night. I didn't get that.''

His parents persuaded him to return. He left after his junior year, got his European Tour card and last year broke through with victories in consecutive starts at the Czech Masters and the KLM Open in Holland.

He finished 29th in the Race to Dubai, earning him a spot in the British Open this summer. That will be his first major unless he can get into the Masters, and the U.S. Open.

And when the majors are over, Pieters will wear his country's colors in the Olympics. Rio is a long way to go. By now, Pieters is used to that.

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.