‘Wonderkid’ Thomas Pieters seems to have overcome a mysterious loss of form to once again show his Major potential, writes JAMES CORRIGAN.
Just before the New Year, I texted Pete Cowen to ask for one prediction for the 2022 golf season. The reply from the great English coach was as succinct as it was quickly delivered. ‘Thomas Pieters will be a top-20 player in the world and will contend at least one Major,’ it said.
Cowen is Pieters’ long-time swing adviser, so perhaps his confidence should not be surprising. After all, any guru worthy of their 5% talks a good game when it comes to their guys or gals. Yet Cowen is not like that.
At 71, he does not believe in wasting words and with a stable containing the likes of Brooks Koepka, Henrik Stenson and until recently Rory McIlroy, knows exactly what it takes. ‘Thomas has everything it takes – has done for a long while – and I have no doubt he will reach his potential,’ Cowen told me, after I pressed him to expand.
A fortnight later, the Belgian won the first DP World Tour tournament of the season – the Abu Dhabi Championship.
As one of the Rolex Series events, the prize fund was $8-million and featured a stellar cast including world No 2 Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland – the brilliant young Norwegian who was soon to rise to world No 3 with victory in Dubai – and McIlroy.
It was the sixth individual title of Pieters’ career and by no doubt the biggest. The joy and relief were obvious. ‘Finally … finally a really big event,’ he said, two weeks before his 30th birthday. ‘I don’t take anything away from the other wins, but this one definitely stands out for me.’
In truth, the stature of this triumph was long overdue. As an amateur, the boy from Antwerp enjoyed a ridiculously successful time in the US college system, overcoming homesickness and the challenge of settling into a wildly different country, to stun the ‘Can’t-Miss Kids’ of that generation, beating the likes of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed not once but twice in winning the NCAA Individual in 2012 and ’13.
‘He was the one none of us could get the better of,’ Spieth said. ‘That was Thomas Pieters for you.’
Three years after leaving Illinois, Pieters was in the spotlight at the 2016 Ryder Cup, becoming the first European rookie to win four points out of five. Suddenly, everyone knew what Darren Clarke, that year’s blue and gold captain, had meant a few weeks before when dismissing the fears of the sceptics.
‘Look, I didn’t want to pick another debutant for an away game – we already have five in the team automatically, but Thomas just gives me no choice,’ Clarke said. ‘He hits it so far and his short game is also fantastic. Thomas brings something special to the team. I have not seen a young player with as much talent since Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. I’ve been on Tour for a long time and I’ve seen massive talent come along.
‘I played with Tiger when he was an amateur at The Open Championship at Lytham in 1996 and I’ve seen Rory up close since he’s been a very young kid. Well, Thomas impresses me in the same league as those guys. He has that amount of talent. Can he be world No 1? Yes.’
Clarke’s big friend Lee Westwood concurred. ‘Everybody sees Thomas as a bit of a bomber, which he is, but what impresses me is his pitching and his his holing out,’ he said. ‘I think he’s got everything. He’s a star in waiting.’
Clarke’s side were trounced at Hazeltine, but Pieters provided rich succour. The Europeans left Minnesota delighted to have witnessed the birth of a superstar and nobody was more thrilled than McIlroy. ‘I’ve got a partner beside me for the next 20 years,’ he said. ‘I’m not letting anyone else have him. Thomas is mine.’
At that stage, Pieters was 24 and with three wins already to his name was 39th in the world. Seven months laters, he came fourth in his Masters debut. There was no stopping him. Except, in golf sometimes the brakes go, unseen, and despite finishing fourth at a World Golf Championship event at Bridgestone that August – so rising into the world’s top 25 – there was soon to be a discernible and completely mystifying screeching.
In the first six months of 2018, he fell to 82nd in the World Ranking and nobody could understand why. Despite McIlroy’s patronage and the desperation of the captain – ‘I really, really want Thomas on my team, but in this form I cannot justify a pick’ – he was overlooked for the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris and so the mediocrity continued.
There was the odd week when his ability shone through – not least the 2018 World Cup alongside countryman Thomas Detry – yet this only served to heighten the frustration. By July 2019 he was out of the world’s top 100 and whispers emerged of a problem in his personal life.
They shall remain private, but in Cowen’s opinion it was ‘a number of things’. One of these was his hesitancy in moving back to the US and joining the big show. These concerns were expressed by his fellow Belgian Tour winner, Nicolas Colsaerts.
‘We have talked about playing in the US a little bit,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think he would want to be surrounded by Americans 365 days a year. People think that because he went to the US he only wants to play the PGA Tour, but he has shown at the Ryder Cup, with his shushing of the crowd and the way he plays, that he doesn’t like them that much.’
In the ensuing furore, Colsaerts claimed he was misquoted – NB: I was there, he wasn’t – and Pieters tweeted his affection for the country. ‘I’m sorry guys but these aren’t my words at all!!!!!!’ he said. ‘I love America and your people!’ Nevertheless, it remained interesting that he never did take the Florida plunge. Instead he battled on in Europe and with hindsight maybe that was the best place for him to repiece his game.
‘Thomas will tell you it was his putting, and the stats indicated that,’ Cowen said. ‘There was certainly nothing wrong with his dedication. When Danny Willett won the 2016 Masters Thomas said he was going to buy a flat in Sheffield, because that’s where Danny lived and it was close to my driving range and he thought Danny was getting more coaching than he was! I think that shows his desire to be the best.
‘It’s funny, because I’ve always said that the biggest problem in golf is money, and how lots of it spoils almost all the players in a negative way. I see it in football, where the desire to actually be the best is gone. You’ve got to ask yourself, what do you really want? Do you want to become a very wealthy man, which you already are, or do you want to be the best? There’s a difference. Thomas Pieters doesn’t even say it, but I know he wants to be the best. He’s one of the most motivated players I’ve coached, and he’s got a bit of an edge to him. He gets annoyed.’
In 2019, Pieters finally won his first strokeplay event in four years, but in 2020 his life was forever changed. His partner gave birth and the year was largely a competitive write-off for him as he took five months off in the extraordinary circumstances. His game entered a slide, with him tumbling out of the top 100 again but he managed to heed Cowen’s advice to ‘just keep working and stay patient and it will change around’.
So it did at the Portugal Masters in his penultimate start in 2021 and there followed Abu Dhabi making it two wins in three events. A tie for 12th in Dubai the next week retained the momentum and he marched on towards March, guaranteed his return to The Masters after a four-year absence.
Sam Torrance, the former Ryder Cup captain who became close to Pieters as vice-captain in the 2016 match, expects him to be a factor in Georgia. ‘I’ve joked with him that his next win will be a Major, but the truth is he is playing so well he may win again before The Masters comes around in April,’ he said. ‘He’s playing the best golf of his life, the golf of which we have always known he is capable. He looks to be more mature now.’
While Pieters maintains it is his form on the greens that has been the issue, he takes on board Torrance’s point.
‘Maybe there has been a bit of maturing and taking the right decisions at the right times. Sometimes you have to play some “boring” golf and be disciplined,’ he said. ‘It’s always been kind of like chasing this and chasing that, but now I have the platform from which I can build for more big wins. I kind of disappeared for a couple of years there, I guess. I’m happy to be back.’
PIETERS’ STATS FROM ABU DHABI VICTORY
1st: Strokes gained (SG): Tee to green (+2.64)
1st: Scrambling (86.67%)
3rd: Par-four scoring (3.88)
4th: SG: Off the tee (+1.23)
12th: Greens in regulation (79.15%)
18th: Driving accuracy (69.64%)
26th: SG: Around the green (+0.54)
28th: SG: Approach the green (+0.88)
39th: SG: Putting (+0.47)
20 BEST FINISHES
2014: Open de Espana (T2nd)
2015: KLM Open (1st), Czech Masters (1st), Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (T4th)
2016: Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (2nd), Made In Denmark (1st), Czech Masters (2nd), Olympic Golf Competition (4th), True Thailand Classic (3rd)
2017: Genesis Open (T2nd), The Masters (T4th), WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (4th), WGC-Mexico Championship (T5th)
2018: The PGA Championship (T6th), Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship (T5th)
2019: Czech Masters (1st), DP World Tour Championship, Dubai (T6th)
2020: Saudi International (T3rd)
2021: Portugal Masters (1st)
2022: Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship (1st)
– This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!