The celebrities aside, there’s no prizes for guessing who’ll be the main target for the autograph hunters who come out in force for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Thomas Pieters has made himself the £4 million event’s headline act by becoming Europe’s most successful Ryder Cup rookie and, according to one seasoned campaigner, Hazeltine is just the beginning of big things to come for the Belgian.
“The sky’s the limit for Thomas,” predicted Scot Stephen Gallacher as he reflected on Pieters having vindicated his wild card selection for the biennial event by ending the 41st encounter as Europe’s top performer with four points from five matches, three of those coming in a fruitful partnership with Rory McIlroy before beating J B Holmes in Sunday’s singles.
Gallacher, a Ryder Cup rookie himself at Gleneagles two years ago, did add that it required the 24-year-old to “keep maturing, keep learning and playing the way he’s doing” but, like so many other European Tour players, including European captain Darren Clarke, of course, Gallacher believed Pieters was a star in the making long before what was effectively his coming of age in Minnesota.
“He’s very long, very, very long. But he’s got such a good touch with his short irons, as we saw in Denmark,” said Gallacher of the win Pieters produced in the final event in Europe’s year-long qualifying race to earn his selection ahead of both Russell Knox and Luke Donald.
“When he closed out those last three holes in Denmark, he chipped a little sand wedge stiff, chipped another one stiff and then played a wee 9-iron at the last. He’s got the length and accuracy off the tee, but he’s also really, really good with the short irons, which some of these longer hitters can struggle for a bit.”
Europe’s motto last week was “shoulder to shoulder” and Pieters is the first to admit that he found himself in a privileged position to be doing that with McIlroy in three of the five sessions. It was the way he embraced playing with arguably the world’s best player, matching some of the brilliance produced by McIlroy, that was every bit as impressive, though, as his final points haul and the place he now occupies in the record books.
“I thought he would play four or five matches, just because nothing really gets to him,” said Gallacher. “You see how cool he was. And you’re playing with Rory, as well. But, as I said to people, I think if you ask the eleven guys, who would you want to play with, they would all say Rory.”
It was a measure of the impact Pieters made that McIlroy is claiming him for future Ryder Cups. “I’ve got a partner beside me for the next 20 years, I’m not letting anyone else have him,” declared the four-time major winner in Europe’s post-match press conference on Sunday night.
“It’s fine with me,” said Pieters, smiling, in reply to that. “It’s Rory McIlroy. He’s the best player in the world. If he says, ‘I want you on my team for the next 20 years’, I just go, ‘okay’.”
Privately, Pieters has been regaling fellow players with tales from last week. Publicly, at least for now, the most we’re going to get is how much he enjoyed being in the company of Ryder Cup stalwarts like Sam Torrance and Ian Poulter. “As the week went on, I got why these guys get into the Ryder Cup,” he said. “I think on Friday I didn’t celebrate once. But, on Sunday, I had a couple of fist pumps.”
What is certainly apparent is that Pieters will, like McIlroy and others, go into the Ryder Cup playing for the team and not himself. “I think it’s tough to talk about my individual performance when you lose as a team,” he said. “You go there as a team, so you win or you lose as a team.
“Obviously there’s talk about me being a rookie and having four points, and I played great and I’m really happy to have earned four points. But three of those points were with Rory, so I don’t see it as my four points.”
What he does see is the experience of last week standing him in very good stead indeed if, as seems likely, he becomes a major contender. The fact he’s only played in two – the Open and US PGA this year – backs up his contention things have gone a “bit fast” since he came into this event two seasons ago needing a good performance to secure his Tour card. But, having already had the game to land one of the game’s biggest titles, he also now has the confidence. Buckets and buckets of it, in fact.
“Even Rory said, it’s nothing like a major,” he said of Hazeltine. “The Ryder Cup is the most nervous he’s been and coming down the stretch in a major is going to seem easier. I got a lot of compliments from last week for being able to pull the shots off when I really needed to.
“A couple of times on 16, when I was maybe up one or two, and you need a shot 220 over the water with 40,000 people looking at you. And when you pull it off, it gives you a huge confidence boost.”