With five rookies already in his team, Darren Clarke would probably be reluctant to add a 24-year-old to that list, but Belgian Thomas Pieters looks determined to put himself in the frame for one of the European captain’s three Ryder Cup wild cards.
On a day when Englishman Tom Lewis squandered a golden opportunity to become the first player on the European Tour to shoot 59 – he was 12-under-par after 13 holes before dropping three shots – Pieters produced the first thrust in the final push for the remaining places up for grabs in Clarke’s team for Hazetline next month.
For the Antwerp man to open the Made in Denmark at Himmerland Golf Resort in Farsø with a nine-under-par 62 – it earned him a share of the lead with Lewis and Swede Joakim Lagergren – was impressive on its own. That he did it under Clarke’s nose, having been paired with the Northern Irishman in the opening two rounds, added to its potential significance.
“It was stress-free today,” said Pieters after signing for ten birdies, his sole blemish coming at the signature hole on this course – the 124-yard 16th. “I drove it well off the tee, hit it close and made a bunch of putts. I did all I could in front of Darren today. He has a lot on his mind other than golf and we will just have to wait and see. It’s up to Darren. If I do win this week, it might get him thinking, but I just have tomorrow to worry about.”
Pieters won the Czech Masters and KLM Open on consecutive appearances just under a year ago, the latter being the second event in Europe’s qualifying campaign. He’d dropped off the Ryder Cup radar until finishing fourth in the Olympics in Rio then ending in second in his Czech Masters title defence when a win would have kept alive his hopes of making the team automatically coming into this event.
Bidding to emulate compatriot Nicolas Colsaerts, who earned a wild card from Jose Maria Olazabal for the match in Medinah four years ago, Pieters certainly wouldn’t represent a gamble by Clarke. If he does win on Sunday, then he could well pip Russell Knox for the last of the captain’s picks if, as seems likely, he will opt for the experienced duo, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood.
Kaymer, the hero in Chicago in 2012 and a winner on all three of his appearances in the biennial contest, bemoaned a “cold putter” as he opened with a two-under 69 in Denmark, where the two other Ryder Cup contenders in the field, home favourite Soren Kjeldsen and Irishman Shane Lowry, suffered contrasting fortunes.
While disappointed to bogey his last two holes, Kjeldsen kept his wild-card hopes alive with a 68, but Lowry now looks to be out of the picture after the US Open runner-up had to settle for a 75.
While the Ryder Cup race is set to overshadow the event, it was forgotten about – albeit briefly – as Lewis, a member of the winning Walker Cup team at Royal Aberdeen in 2011, flirted with the first 59 in European Tour history. It was on the cards when he eagled the fourth – his 13th – to get to 12-under, leaving him needing one more birdie to earn a place in the record books only for bogeys at the fifth, eighth and ninth to see him come up short and also miss out on becoming the 19th player to shoot 60 on the circuit.
“It’s a tough one as it was on there and unfortunately I came up just short,” said Lewis. “Maybe I thought too much, or tried too hard, hence the finish. But it’s not a problem. If I go out there tomorrow and do the same thing I did today, I could shoot another nine under.”
Scott Jamieson, sitting 142nd in the Race to Dubai and needing a strong finish to the season to hang on to his card, made an albatross 2 at the fourth as he opened with a six-under 65 to be leading Scot in joint-fifth. Despite runing up a 7 at the 11th, Richie Ramsay is sharing 10th on 67.