GolfMagic caught up with Thomas Pieters ahead of this week's Open Championship where the big-hitting Belgian goes in search of his maiden major title at Royal Birkdale.
Pieters, 25, has won three times on the European Tour and was the top points scorer with four points from five in spite of Europe's 17-11 loss at the hands of the United States at the 2016 Ryder Cup.
The world number 30 spoke confidently about his chances of one day winning a major championship, his love of the links, his impressive Ryder Cup rookie experience, his dreams of an Olympic gold medal and his admiration of the European Tour's new Rolex Series...
GM: Thomas, what are your initial thoughts of Royal Birkdale having played it for the first time in your career this week?
TP: Yeah, I played the front nine with Alex Levy on Tuesday and it was really tough out there. There was almost no wind and I still thought it was tough. I played 18 because you couldn’t get a better day than yesterday and I still thought it was tough. When you’re hitting your drives and your tee shots, it is narrow, the ball runs in to bunkers and the greens are hard to hit.
There’s not too much undulation or plateaus on the green so it makes putting a bit easier but I think, just hitting the middle of the green on every hole would be fine. There’s not many courses where you would say that but like I said, I think tee shots are key here, it’s a second shot golf course. There’s not too many guys you’re going to see slashing the driver everywhere, I don’t think that’s going to work this week.
GM: Do you prefer to play links golf courses?
TP: Definitely. When I was growing up I didn’t actually play on links courses, but every time I went to play abroad, most of the time in England, for example at the England under 16 or under 18 events, they were on links courses and I really loved it. I think you need to be more creative with your shots on a links course, which at times can feel like a struggle, but I enjoy it.
Sadly, we don’t really get to play that many links courses, usually only in the summer when the weather allows us to, so it’s something I always look forward to. The Open is probably one of the last times we get to play on a links course for the rest of the year, so I can’t wait.
GM: What do you think will be key to scoring this week?
TP: Hitting fairways is very important at Royal Birkdale. It already looks like it’s going to burn out and be very firm. Maybe after tomorrow if we get some rain it will soften up a bit, even today when I was hitting wedge shots into the green, they didn’t spin too much, they just kind of bounce and run, and it’s only Tuesday, so I can’t imagine what it’ll be like on Sunday, probably more like the US Open style of course.
GM: Is your length off the tee something you can take advantage of this week?
TP: Definitely on a couple of holes, I think, but not too much on this course. On a couple of holes I can hit it over a bunker, but then there’s trouble as well. I would think I’m much straighter with my three iron off the tee which I can probably hit around 240 yards if I need to, so I prefer to put that one in to play on every hole than maybe hit it over a bunker and end up in the rough, so I’ll take my chances with hitting fairways.
GM: So it’s your second Open Championship having finished tied 30th at Troon in 2016. Are there things that happened last year that you’ll bring here? Does it give you an advantage that you’ve experienced an Open before?
TP: Well, last year I was doing really well until 11 or 12 where I made an 8 or a 9 so what I take from last year is that even then I was in the top 10. Looking back at that week I knew I could do it, I just hadn’t shown it yet. I think this year at Augusta I showed everybody I could possibly win a major. I know I can do it (win a major) so it’s just a matter of time I think.
GM: Could you reflect on your 2016 season as obviously it was a massive year for you, and how that has impacted this year, particularly after the Ryder Cup?
TP: I think the coolest moment was how I played my way in to the Ryder Cup team. They told me I had to go and win, to automatically qualify, and I came second and first. At the time Darren [Clarke] said he knew he was going to pick me, but I didn’t have the feeling that that was what he was thinking. I definitely asked him, but I didn’t know, so once I got the call it was all good.
The Ryder Cup is a historic event, and even though we lost it was great experience for me that I can learn from for the next ones. This year it has been a bit up and down – I’ve been in contention a lot, but I haven’t finished it off, so that’s the only thing I’m waiting for now. I’ve got to be patient and not get too frustrated and down on myself which I have a tendency to do.
GM: Did you enjoy the atmosphere at Hazeltine?
TP: Yes, of course, it’s the best. A few of the tournaments after the Ryder Cup were tough for me because I couldn’t get excited anymore, and I’ve heard that from some of the other players as well, so you need to reflect, put it behind you and start again.
GM: What do you think about Le Golf National as a venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup?
A: I think it’s going to be one of the best ever, it’s one of the best finishes. It has the best four finishing holes in Europe I think. The water and the natural shapes of the land are going to be amazing. This year in the practice round at Golf National I got goose bumps on hole 18. It’s going to be cool I think.
GM: How well recognised are you when you’re back home in Belgium? Are you considered a major sports star?
TP: Not yet. It’s getting bigger, but not better for me because I don’t like it, but that just comes with the territory I guess.
GM: Is that a consequence of the Ryder Cup selection?
TP: Yes that helped massively, but not really in my favour, but the sport itself is growing massively. A lot of people are picking it up, they’re building a lot more golf courses now which is great, and a lot of new driving ranges are opening up.
GM: Do you not really want to be seen in the limelight?
TP: Not really no.
GM: Where would golf rank among other sports back home in Belgium? Would football be number one?
A: It’s pretty far down the list! It gets in the news every once in a while so it’s getting better, but I think the first time ever it got in the news was when Nico played in the Ryder Cup, but even when he won in China it didn’t even make the newspapers! We get some respect from other athletes which is fun and good to see I think. A lot of soccer players play golf and tennis, so they respect us, and now the media is getting better at seeing it as well.
GM: Did you enjoy the Olympics in Rio?
TP: Yes, I loved it and I really can’t wait for the next one.
GM: What was so special about it?
TP: Definitely playing for your country. I always loved it when we played at the European Championships, whether under 18 or under 21, and although this wasn’t a team event, it really felt you were at a team tournament. Niko (Nicholas Colsaerts) and I do everything together all week with the coaches and just being in the Belgian apartment block, and it feels like everybody respects everybody there.
GM: You have played tournaments on the European Tour and on the PGA Tour – what would you say are the main differences for you as a player between the two Tours?
TP: For me, the PGA Tour is very far from home. That’s really the only thing I don’t like about the PGA Tour so far. I went to LA one week and I was on the plane for 15 or 16 hours and you realise that as soon as you get there you have to deal with the jet lag, play golf, and then fly back home and then you’re playing somewhere else the next week, whereas on the European Tour I drove here, so it’s very different.
GM: Does the European Tour's new Rolex Series schedule mean you get to spend more time at home?
TP: Yes! When they announced it, I decided to play all of the Rolex tournaments and everything is going to be based around it.
GM: Do you play as a member of the PGA Tour during the season? Do you have any plans to?
TP: I picked up membership for next year, so I will play my minimum, but my focus is definitely here, particularly through the Rolex Series and on the Ryder Cup team.
GM: Is there anything you’ve been working on particularly ahead of this week, or in the last three weeks?
TP: Same old stuff with Pete Cowen. In particular, ball flight and controlling the ball 100%. I get close to that but sometimes you lose it a bit but I feel like I’ve got my control somewhat under control. We’ll see how it holds up in the wind because that’s the most important thing.
GM: What's Pete Cowen like to work with?
TP: He’s easy. If you listen to him and do his drills, he’s easy.
GM: I think that you’d joked that you were going to buy a flat in Sheffield to be closer to Pete Cowen so that you don’t have to travel so much?
TP: It’s not a joke… no, no it’s a joke. I’d love to practice with Pete everyday but I’d go crazy and he’d go crazy so it’s better we don’t do it.
GM: Have you set goals going forward with Pete that you can share?
TP: To get in contention. If I did that 10-15 times a year statistics would say that you’d win a couple. I’ve got there (in contention) maybe five or six times this year and I haven’t finished it off. It’s not disappointing, you just need to be patient.
GM: You obviously had a very good tournament in your debut at The Masters this year when finishing tied fourth. What would you say the difference in your game was between there and at Erin Hills at the US Open (where Pieters missed the cut)?
TP: At Erin Hills, I just did not make any putts. I didn’t play that bad. I feel like in the first two rounds I almost matched Brooks [Koepka] shot for shot and he made everything whereas I made absolutely nothing. At the Masters I didn’t finish it off, it was a disappointing finish for me but I gave myself a chance, I can’t regret anything but obviously I was not happy coming off the course.
GM: Do you have certain goals for your career?
TP: I’d love to win an Olympic Gold medal.
GM: Of all the majors, which one do you think you have the best chance of winning?
TP: The Masters, but anyone of them would be fine!
GM: It’s an important year for Rolex celebrating their 50 years partnership with golf. Rolex has been a partner of the R & A and official timekeeper of the Open since 1981. How did you become affiliated with Rolex? What was your first Rolex and your first Rolex memory?
TP: Growing up as a kid watching golf, it is the only brand you know so to get the phone call to tell me I was going to be a brand ambassador was one of the best phone calls I’ve ever had. Rolex has been amazing to us. To be a brand ambassador is just amazing. There’s not many brands you really, really want to be a part of, I reckon Nike and Rolex are high up there for any athlete.
My first Rolex I actually bought myself, and that was only two months before I got the call from Rolex! I had saved some money from my tournaments and I went to a second-hand store in Belgium and bought a silver DateJust. I love it, it’s small, it’s light and I still wear it
At the Ryder Cup we got a Rolex Daytona. They engraved it on the back which is amazing and the first one I got from Rolex was a silver steel, black dial Daytona. This is my favourite (points to his black dial Daytona). This is so light, I also love the strap on this one and this one I only got a month ago. I was actually given the first one in Belgium. Rolex gave me a new Skydweller and I went to say hi to them because I hadn’t seen them in a while. I told them that the week before I had been at the US Open and I saw the Daytona. They told me they had just got it in yesterday and asked if I wanted to try it on and then they gave it to me, I’m a lucky guy.
For more information about Rolex's involvement with golf click here.