By Adam Schupak
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Every once in a while in this line of work, you meet a young player before he hits stardom. As luck would have it, I happened to be seated next to Belgium's Thomas Pieters at a rubber-chicken dinner just days before he won the 2012 Monroe Invitational in Pittsford, N.Y. He was unfailingly polite, affable and poised. Not long after, I witnessed his lethal combination of power and precision as he downed No. 1-seeded Jordan Spieth in the Round of 64 at the 2012 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver.
"Looks like we're staying a little longer," Pieters said with a smirk to his caddie while walking off the 18th green as a 1-up victor.
Pieters was a cold-blooded assassin that day, so it didn't surprise me four years later when he became the first European to earn four points as a rookie in the Ryder Cup.
Rory McIlroy must have seen what I saw, too. At the post-Ryder Cup news conference, McIlroy wrapped an arm around Pieters and said, "I've got a partner beside me for the next 20 years. I'm not letting anyone else have him."
Mike Small, Pieters’ college coach at Illinois, discovered the Belgian bomber on a recruiting video. He saw raw talent.
"He didn't know where Champaign (Ill.) was," Small said. "He just knew it was in America."
Despite 3 feet of snow on the ground during his campus visit, Pieters committed to the Illini. He was Small's first international recruit. All Pieters did was win the Big Ten Championship at the stout Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort, the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village, home of The Memorial, and the 2012 NCAA men's individual title at Riviera Country Club (Genesis Open), each a ball-striker's paradise.
"My technically most-gifted player," is how Pete Cowen, whose students include 2016 major winners Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson, described Pieters to me.
Thanks to a closing 63 and a tie for second at the Genesis Open last week, Pieters, 25, is halfway to earning special temporary membership to the PGA Tour, which likely would wrap up playing privileges for 2018. Expect to hear a lot more from Pieters, who already has won three times on the European Tour.
Pieters likely will make several appearances stateside during the next three months. In addition to this week’s Honda Classic here at PGA National, he is scheduled to play the WGC-Mexico Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, WGC-Dell Match Play, Masters and potentially return for The Players Championship in May and Memorial in June. But don't be surprised if he spends most of his time playing on the other side of the Atlantic.
"I just love playing in Europe," Pieters said. "I love the atmosphere and seeing different cultures and cities. . . . I'm really close to my family, and I love living at home and, you know, I'm a new uncle now, which is really exciting."
So is the future for Pieters. He already stands No. 33 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and he just may be the most talented player without a victory on the PGA Tour. All I know for sure is this: meeting him that night in Pittsford, N.Y., was a lot more memorable than the chicken dinner.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @adamschupak.