Keeping Score

‘Twin Towers’ provide window into Europe’s future

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The Twin Towers of European golf are coming to a television screen near you.

You expect to see your favorite big names contend at the Masters Tournament this weekend, and you will. Even without injured Dustin Johnson, familiar names such as Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are in the chase.

As a bonus, you’ll also get a glimpse of the Next Big Things from the other side of the Atlantic: Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, a lanky 6 feet 5 inches, and Spain’s Jon Rahm, an imposing 6-2. These Twin Towers look like the pillars of Europe’s Ryder Cup team for the next decade. In short, get used to them.

Pieters, 25, skipped his senior season at Illinois to turn pro and was a breakout Ryder Cup star at Hazeltine last fall. He almost broke out again here Thursday.  He was 5 under through 10 holes and led the Masters in gale-like conditions before a pair of back-nine double bogeys dropped him back to even par. 

He isn’t known for his on-course patience but he shrugged off that disappointing closing nine.

“I’ve been hitting good shots, even the ones when I made double,” he said. “At 15, I hit six good shots. What else can you do? That’s golf. That’s the Masters.”

Did somebody say breakout? Friday, Pieters did it again with an eagle-birdie run at 13 and 14 en route to a 4-under 68. He finished in a four-way tie for the lead with Charley Hoffman, Garcia and Fowler. Pieters already had made a fortunate birdie at the ninth when his slick downhill putt hit the cup and dropped instead of likely careening off the front of the green.

“Luckily, the hole got in the way,” Pieters said with a smile. “You have to be careful, but sometimes, you know, they can go in.”

Rahm, 22, played college golf at Arizona State and is a can’t-miss star, if not a full-fledged star already. He plays aggressive power golf, as does Pieters, and besides scoring his first tour win at Torrey Pines recently, he lost the Dell Technologies Match Play Championship to Johnson in a fierce final and was third in the World Golf Championship in Mexico City. 

I like the odds that Rahm or Pieters, or maybe both, will own a major title before next year’s Ryder Cup in France. It could happen this weekend. Pieters has nine birdies and an eagle in two rounds and just about zero awe of this situation. He’ll play Saturday in the next-to-last twosome with Fowler.

“He’s got a lot of power and he’s a great ballstriker,” Fowler said. “We played in the final group at Abu Dhabi a year and a half ago, and he gave me a good run. It’s no surprise he’s played well in the wind. He’s got a good ball flight for that. He’s a very impressive player.”

Rahm shot 2-under 70, two strokes better than his playing competitor, McIlroy, and quickly shook off any Masters nerves.

“That second shot yesterday got rid of any discomfort,” he said. “Obviously, it is a major and you are going to get nervous. You just have to fight hard and be mentally tough.”

Rahm has used his length to play the par 5s in 5 under and stands at 1-under 143, in a share of sixth place. He isn’t fazed by the historical lack of success of Masters rookies. 

“First-timers don’t have a great history at Torrey Pines, either, and I was able to win there,” Rahm said. “I keep that in mind. I like tough conditions.”

Pieters isn’t fazed, either. “That’s just a stat,” he said.

The Belgian has watched the Masters for most of his life and imagined what it might be like to contend.

“Oh, I’ve holed the winning putt about a million times,” he said, laughing lightly. “We’ve all done that in practice.”

Sunday evening, one of the Twin Towers might get a chance to do it again. For real, this time.

 Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle

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