Pieters, Illini primed for big stage
Sure, he likes the school. And the new friends he's made. And the (mostly) pleasant weather.
But the main reason Thomas Pieters made the extra-long commute from Nijlen, Belgium, to Champaign is to play in big-time golf events. They don't get any bigger for an amateur golfer than this week's NCAA Championships.
Pieters and his Illinois teammates earned their fifth consecutive finals berth, playing solid golf at the Norman (Okla.) Regional to advance to Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. That followed a fourth consecutive Big Ten title for Pieters and pals, who had to rally in the final holes.
After practicing today, the No. 24 seeds will try to earn a spot in the eight-team match-play event. Illinois made it in 2011, losing in the quarterfinals against Georgia in Pieters' freshman season.
Illinois advanced out of the difficult Norman Regional. Pieters was leading the individual tournament until Washington's Chris Williams eagled No. 18 to edge him by 1 stroke.
"I was a little disappointed," Pieters said. "He played well. I should have just played a little bit better."
At Riviera, home of Hogan's Alley, keeping the ball in the fairways is critical. That part hasn't been a problem for Pieters.
"I've felt close all year," Pieters said. "I've been hitting it really good, almost the same every week. But the putts didn't fall. The last couple of weeks, the putts have been going in. It's nice to get some high finishes."
Teammate Luke Guthrie, the two-time Big Ten champion, provides on-course inspiration for Pieters. Though they don't play in the same group, they are often a hole apart.
"When I see him making putts, it motivates you to play better yourself," Pieters said.
Pieters could have been playing for one of the other teams at the Norman Regional: Florida State. When he decided to play college golf in the U.S. rather than turn pro, Illinois and Florida State were his two options. He picked the Northern school.
"It's cold back home, and we have an awesome indoor facility here," Pieters said.
Pieters thinks the conditions in C-U help the Illini in big tournaments. The winds were blowing hard at Norman, and the Illini felt at home.
"When it's windy, we know that we're going to do better," Pieters said. "We know the other teams are going to shoot the high scores. We know that we're a tough team."
He's rooting for wind at Riviera.
"It's only two blocks from the beach, so maybe it will be windy," Pieters said.
The first time he will see the course is during today's practice round. Before that, he's only seen Riviera on TV (it hosts the Northern Trust Open).
"We've been talking about it the whole year," Pieters said. "We can't wait to get down there to play it."
But they aren't going to sightsee. The Illini want to improve on last year's fifth-place finish.
"We can win it," Pieters said. "In match play, anything can happen. We can get paired with the top team in the country and win 5-0 or lose 5-0.
"We've very confident. We won Big Tens, which is really good for our confidence. At regionals, we were pretty good."
Pieters wants this to be the second of four NCAA Championship appearances during his career, which would match Guthrie. Pieters plans to complete four years at Illinois before considering a pro career.
A year from now, with Guthrie graduated, Pieters becomes the team leader. And he'll be joined by a familiar face. Illini recruit Thomas Detry is from Pieters' hometown.
"I want to help the younger guys out," Pieters said. "That's what they did last year with me."
Riding to Riviera
On Tuesday, the NCAA golf championship opens at the famous course in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Here’s what you need to know:
WHEN: Tuesday to Sunday
FORMAT: 54 holes of stroke play Tuesday to Thursday. The top eight teams advance to match play, which starts Friday.
ILLINOIS LINEUP: Alex Burge, Brian Campbell, Luke Guthrie, Mason Jacobs, Thomas Pieters.
TEAMS TO BEAT: Alabama, Auburn, Cal, Southern Cal, Texas, UCLA.
DEFENDING CHAMP: Augusta State, which won the 2010 and 2011 titles. It didn’t make the finals, finishing 4 strokes short of advancing in the Athens Regional.
CAN ILLINOIS WIN IT ALL? Absolutely. But it won’t be easy. And it will take season-best performances from Burge, Campbell and Jacobs. Illinois is counting on low scores from Big Ten champion Guthrie and Pieters, who just missed winning the regional. But to advance, the bottom half of the lineup has to excel. Illinois has familiarity on its side. The school is one of just six to make the last five NCAA Championships. The other five are all from the Sun Belt.