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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Weather extends Barbasol to Monday finish

By Associated PressJuly 23, 2018, 12:25 am

NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. - A thunderstorm has suspended the fourth round of the PGA Tour's Barbasol Championship until Monday morning.

Sunday's third stoppage of play at Champions Trace at Keene Trace Golf Club came with the four leaders - Hunter Mahan, Robert Streb, Tom Lovelady and Troy Merritt at 18 under par - and four other contenders waiting to begin the round.

The tournament will resume at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Lightning caused one delay, and play was stopped earlier in the afternoon to clear water that accumulated on the course following a morning of steady and sometimes-heavy rain.

Inclement weather has plagued the tournament throughout the weekend. The second round was completed Saturday morning after being suspended by thunderstorms late Friday afternoon.

The resumption will mark the PGA Tour's second Monday finish this season. Jason Day won the Farmers Insurance Open in January after darkness delayed the sixth playoff hole, and he needed just 13 minutes to claim the victory.

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Watch: Spectator films as Woods' shot hits him

By Will GrayJuly 23, 2018, 12:07 am

It was a collision watched by millions of fans on television, and one that came at a pivotal juncture as Tiger Woods sought to win The Open. It also gave Colin Hauck the story of a lifetime.

Hauck was among dozens of fans situated along the left side of the 11th hole during the final round at Carnoustie as the pairing of Woods and Francesco Molinari hit their approach shots. After 10 holes of nearly flawless golf, Woods missed the fairway off the tee and then pulled his iron well left of the target.

The ball made square contact with Hauck, who hours later tweeted a video showing the entire sequence - even as he continued to record after Woods' shot sent him tumbling to the ground:

The bounce initially appeared fortuitous for Woods, as his ball bounded away from thicker rough and back toward the green. But an ambitious flop shot came up short, and he eventually made a double bogey to go from leading by a shot to trailing by one. He ultimately shot an even-par 71, tying for sixth two shots behind Molinari.

For his efforts as a human shield, Hauck received a signed glove and a handshake from Woods - not to mention a firsthand video account that will be sure to spark plenty of conversations in the coming years.

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Molinari retirement plan: coffee, books and Twitter

By Will GrayJuly 22, 2018, 9:35 pm

After breaking through for his first career major, Francesco Molinari now has a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a 10-year exemption in Europe and has solidified his standing as one of the best players in the world.

But not too long ago, the 35-year-old Italian was apparently thinking about life after golf.

Shortly after Molinari rolled in a final birdie putt to close out a two-shot victory at The Open, fellow Tour player Wesley Bryan tweeted a picture of a note that he wrote after the two played together during the third round of the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in October. In it, Bryan shared Molinari's plans to retire as early as 2020 to hang out at cafes and "become a Twitter troll":

Molinari is active on the social media platform, with more than 5,600 tweets sent out to nearly 150,000 followers since joining in 2010. But after lifting the claret jug at Carnoustie, it appears one of the few downsides of Molinari's victory is that the golf world won't get to see the veteran turn into a caffeinated, well-read troll anytime soon.

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Molinari had previously avoided Carnoustie on purpose

By Rex HoggardJuly 22, 2018, 9:17 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Sometimes a course just fits a player’s eye. They can’t really describe why, but more often than not it leads to solid finishes.

Francesco Molinari’s relationship with Carnoustie isn’t like that.

The Italian played his first major at Carnoustie, widely considered the toughest of all The Open venues, in 2007, and his first impression hasn’t really changed.

“There was nothing comforting about it,” he said on Sunday following a final-round 69 that lifted him to a two-stroke victory.

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In fact, following that first exposure to the Angus coast brute, Molinari has tried to avoid Carnoustie, largely skipping the Dunhill Links Championship, one of the European Tour’s marquee events, throughout his career.

“To be completely honest, it's one of the reasons why I didn't play the Dunhill Links in the last few years, because I got beaten up around here a few times in the past,” he said. “I didn't particularly enjoy that feeling. It's a really tough course. You can try and play smart golf, but some shots, you just have to hit it straight. There's no way around it. You can't really hide.”

Molinari’s relative dislike for the layout makes his performance this week even more impressive considering he played his last 37 holes bogey-free.

“To play the weekend bogey-free, it's unthinkable, to be honest. So very proud of today,” he said.