Despite U.S. success, Pieters plans to stay in Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2017, 11:18 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thomas Pieters is a homebody at heart.

It’s why the emerging European Tour star, who is making big moves toward securing his PGA Tour card this year, isn’t any closer to moving back to the United States, where he won an NCAA individual title for the University of Illinois.

Pieters, 25, loves his Belgian home.

“He’s very, very close to family,” said Mike Small, Pieters’ college coach.

With his tie for second at the Genesis Open Sunday, where he played on a sponsor’s exemption, Pieters nearly locked up special temporary PGA Tour membership. He now has 306 non-member FedEx points, just 13 points shy of what he needs. He could lock up temporary membership with his start this week at the Honda Classic.

While Pieters would relish being able to have his pick of PGA Tour and European Tour events, he won’t be making the PGA Tour his primary focus anytime soon.

“I’m going to say no right now,” Pieters said. “It might change in the future. Just because I'm really close to my family, and I love living at home. I'm a new uncle now, which is really exciting.”

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Pieters has an older sister and brother. His sister, Lieselotte, helps manage him. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, three months ago.

“King Arthur,” Pieters said.

Pieters looks like he could be the next young star in the game, with skills that can help him challenge Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in the battle for the game’s biggest prizes.

A three-time European Tour winner, Pieters introduced himself to American golf fans who didn’t already know him in a big way at the Ryder Cup last fall, going 3-0 for the Euros in partnered matches with McIlroy. Pieters’ overall 4-1 record was the best by a European rookie in the history of the matches.

Pieters wowed Americans and Euros alike.

“He doesn’t really have a weakness in any department,” former European Ryder Cup captain Mark James raved in the wake of the matches. “Even Tiger Woods at his best had weaknesses. He is a modern version of Nick Faldo – bigger hitting, higher flying, more aggressive.”

Pieters showed some bravado in those Ryder Cup matches, shushing American crowds in a Saturday match alongside McIlroy. Pieters’ friend, Nicolas Colsaerts, later told the Telegraph that Pieters “doesn’t like Americans that much” and can’t see him playing in the United States full time because of that.

Pieters has never said that. He said Tuesday that his tour decisions are about love of family and his European roots.

“Even when I go away for three weeks, I miss my family,” Pieters said. “That's why I'm going to keep playing in Europe, for the Ryder Cup, as well. I told [European Ryder Cup captain] Thomas Björn that I'm not going to leave his tour. I'm dedicated to playing in Europe and being in that Ryder Cup Team.”

Small knows how strong Pieters’ family and European ties are. Small nearly lost his young star to homesickness when Pieters was a freshman at Illinois.

Pieters went home to Belgium for Thanksgiving break as a freshman and almost didn’t return.

“He thought about packing it in, because he was homesick,” Small said. “He didn’t dislike Illinois, he just missed home.

“He has some very good parents, and they stood tall and strong for him. They told him he made a promise to us and a commitment to the program, and they put him on the plane and told him he had to go back.”

Pieters said he remembers that well. He wouldn’t be an NCAA champion today if his parents didn’t step in like that.

“My parents were big on if you started something, you finished it,” Pieters said. “You don’t just give up after a half year when things aren’t going your way, just because of the language barrier and the distance. I’m very, very happy they made me go back.”

There should be some comfort level for Pieters in Palm Beach Gardens this week. The Honda Classic has become a home away from home for a lot of Europeans. McIlroy has a South Florida home.

Pieters ought to be a good fit at PGA National’s Champion Course, a Jack Nicklaus redesign. It’s one of the tougher regular tour stops, and Pieters seems to thrive on tough tracks.

“You look at Thomas’ college wins, they came on tough golf courses,” Small said. “He won the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village. He won the Big Ten Championship at French Lick, and he won the NCAA Championship at Riviera. Those are all ball-strikers’ courses.”

Small believes American galleries will love Pieters the more they get to know him.

“He’s a very good person, a very respectful kid, who’s smart and a lot of fun,” Small said.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.