PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Thomas Pieters already has one victory this season on a PGA Tour venue. He’s closing in on another, in the biggest event of the year. Pieters shot 3-under 68 Wednesday at Riviera Country Club to take a two-shot lead with one round remaining in the race for the NCAA individual title.
Pieters, a sophomore from Belgium, made five birdies and two bogeys Wednesday. He’s at 5-under 137, two shots ahead of UCLA’s Anton Arboleda (72) and Florida’s Tyler McCumber (71). Alabama freshman Justin Thomas, No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, is another stroke back after shooting a second consecutive 70.
“I played pretty solid,” Pieters said. “I hit a lot of fairways and didn’t miss a lot of greens. I played good on the par-5s today. They’re not that long for me.”
He has made five birdies and a par on the six par-5s in two rounds at Riviera.
Pieters won earlier this year at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village Country Club, site of this week’s Memorial. He’s No. 35 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, having finished outside the top-11 just twice in 11 starts this season, including a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten Championship and second in the NCAA regional in Norman, Okla.
Pieters is trying to become the second Illinois player in three years to win the NCAA individual title. Scott Langley won in 2010 at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn.
Pieters has improved in his two seasons in Champaign, Ill., as he’s become more acclimated with life in the States, Illinois head coach Mike Small said.
“He didn’t have a great record coming into school, but he was a very talented player. You could tell he was. He has such great fundamentals,” Small said. “He had all the ballstriking stuff. He compressed it, hit it hard. Now he’s learning all the intricacies about becoming a player. He’s keeping his pace. He’s letting things come to him. He’s a more mature player. He’s developing a better feel for the game.”