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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – There’s something about competing on a course that the pros play on the PGA Tour that obviously appeals to Illinois’ Thomas Pieters.
Last fall, the sophomore from Belgium won his first collegiate title at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village Golf Club, home of Nicklaus’ own Memorial Tournament.
On Thursday, he did it again. This time at the home of the annual Los Angeles-area PGA Tour stop at Riviera Country Club, also site of two PGA Championships, a U.S. Open and a U.S. Senior Open.
And this time around, it was a victory that carried a lot more clout and prestige.
With a final-round, even-par 71 for a 5-under 208 total, Pieters captured the NCAA Championship at this famed venue.
“Winning on these kind of courses (PGA Tour level) proves to me I can play at this level,” Pieters said. “It’s nice to know I can do it.
“Being from Belgium, I know this (NCAA) means a lot more to the people and players in America, but it is a great win for me. It’s nice to close out the season with a win like this at a great course like this.”
Illinois coach Mike Small had plenty of praise for his first international recruit outside of Canada.
“Thomas is a great ball striker and has all the tools to be successful,” Small said. “He’s very coachable and always doing what he has to do to get better. It’s fun to work with a kid like that. He had been struggling a little this spring with his short game and putting, and he’s worked hard in those areas and it showed this week.”
Pieters definitely agrees.
“My short game was very good all week. I got up and down many times,” he said. “And my putting has gotten so much better over the last couple weeks. I think these last three days I only missed one short put inside 6 feet.”
With opening rounds of 69-68 and a 5-under 137 score, Pieters took a two-shot edge into the final round, Starting on the back nine, he made bogey at the 15th, but bounced right back with a birdie at 16. He added another birdie at No. 1 and a bogey at No. 7.
It was good for a three-stroke victory over TCU’s Julien Brun and Florida’s Tyler McCumber. Brun closed with a 4-under 67 for his 211 total and was the leader in the clubhouse after playing in the morning wave and then playing wait-and-watch until Pieters made his score official. McCumber closed with a 72.
UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay, runner-up in this championship last year and 2012 Ben Hogan Award winner, had the tournament’s best round with a 5-under 66. That left him tied for fourth at 1-under 212 along with Kent State’s Corey Connors and Alabama’s Cory Whitsett.
With Illinois tied for eighth in the team standings going into the final round and in the hunt to finish among the top eight and advance to match play, Pieters was feeling both team and individual pressure the final day.
“But when I got to the tee at the fifth hole (his 14th), I saw a scoreboard and saw we (team) were out of it,” he said. “I knew I was playing for myself the rest of the way.”
Yes, but actually not quite. He may not have been playing for the team’s hopes at the moment, but his victory is definitely one that will provide a major boost for Illinois’ golf program, which also produced 2010 NCAA champion Scott Langley.
“To have two different national champions from the same school in the last three years is definitely something we can be very proud of,” said Small, who has guided the Fighting Illini to the NCAA Championship in the past five seasons.
“I think it shows there’s something good going on in Champaign, Ill., and people see the success of Illinois golf,” Small said. “I think it shows we create a positive environment for these young guys to get better. Something like this can only help us down the road.”
Originally, Pieters planned to return home to Belgium and spend the bulk of the summer playing golf in Europe, including in late June as a member of the European Palmer Cup team in its match against the U.S. He looked to return in mid-August for the U.S. Amateur, which this win now makes him exempt from qualifying.
That could change a bit, however.
“Winning this week will give me a lot of momentum going into my U.S. Open qualifier,” said Pieters, who will play in a sectional qualifying event (along with Small) on Monday in Chicago. “It’d be great to qualify and come back to California (Olympic Club in San Francisco) for the U.S. Open.”
And the way he’s been playing lately – he finished second the week before at the NCAA Southwest Regional, losing by one shot to Washington’s Chris Williams, who eagled the final hole – don’t be too surprised if Pieters isn’t, in fact, teeing it up the third week in June at Olympic.