KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – Thomas Pieters might not be a household name for many golf fans, but he does own some street cred in the game.
Some observers no doubt will remember Pieters from the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club, where he teamed with Rory McIlroy to win three points before defeating J.B. Holmes in singles in the Europeans’ 17-11 loss to the Americans.
Others might remember him from his collegiate years at Illinois, as the Belgian won the 2012 NCAA individual title for an Illini team that was one of the best in the nation.
Pieters’ resume doesn’t end there, but recent success has been limited. After amassing three victories on the European Tour in a 13-month span in 2015-16, he has gone winless. Since Pieters piled up four points in the 2016 Ryder Cup, he has not posted a top-3 finish. A victory last fall with fellow Belgian Thomas Detry at the ISPS Handa World Cup of Golf represents Pieters’ last trip to the winner’s circle.
So, his 7-under 63 on Thursday in the opening round of the Saudi International might have seemed like a surprise. Considering that Pieters has posted scores in the 60s in five of eight rounds this year – at Abu Dhabi and Dubai – then it’s clear that he is rounding into consistent form.
“I hit my wedges and short irons really close to the hole,” Pieters said after his bogey-free round, the competitive debut for the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club (scores). “I think I had maybe 10 good chances for birdie and made seven of them. It's a very good day on the greens, as well.”
Because Royal Greens is so new, the green speeds are running a bit slower than older, more-established courses on the European Tour. World No. 1 Justin Rose cited the speed for why he struggled with an even-par 70.
“[I] had the opportunity to hit a lot of shots close to the hole and couldn't make the putts,” Rose said. “Collectively, our group was probably the worst putting round I've seen for three professional golfers in a long, long time, but the greens were very tricky, very, very grainy. It was tough to factor it in, really.”
Pieters took advantage of the slight morning wind to open a two-stroke lead, but he will have to deal with what likely will be windier afternoon conditions over the next three days.
American Bryson DeChambeau, who won last week at the Dubai Desert Classic, opened with 68. “It was a bit frustrating out there in the beginning, and the greens were a little slow, a little bumpy in the afternoon,” he said. “Then the wind picked up, and that made it really difficult out there.”
Pieters knows that with a field that features four of the top five in the world ranking, he faces a big challenge to secure his fourth tour title.
“I haven't clicked all the right parts together yet,” Pieters said. “I hit it great in Abu Dhabi and lost a bit of the putting there on the weekend. I think if I can just keep doing what I'm doing, and one of these weeks, the putts will drop and hopefully have another good result.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli