Augusta, Ga. – Thomas Pieters is a Belgian who does not waffle.
Minnesotans came to know him when he shushed them on Saturday morning of the Ryder Cup, mimicking his opponent at the moment, Patrick Reed.
Friday at the Masters, Pieters shot a 68 to move into a tie for the lead at 4 under par, then defied convention by downplaying the difficulty of Augusta National in high wind.
“It’s just another golf course,” he said. “Just hit the fairway and hit the green and give yourself a chance for birdies.”
Golf can seem that simple when you combine massive power and a deft short game. Pieters, who played at the University of Illinois, could be the next great European player.
“I felt a lot of pressure at the Ryder Cup,” Pieters said. “Hopefully this won’t come close to that. Rory and the others said that’s the most pressure there is in golf.”
Pieters will test that theory this weekend. The 25-year-old is tied for the lead with Charley Hoffman, Rickie Fowler and Ryder Cup teammate Sergio Garcia. Garcia and Fowler are among the best players never to win a major and Hoffman is a tour veteran with one top-10 in a major.
Pieters doesn’t bear the scars the other three do, but he also has yet to experience the pressure that the leader of a major bears. This is his first Masters and third major. He finished 30th in the British Open and 86th at the PGA Championship last year.
He went 4-1 as the best European Ryder Cup player at Hazeltine, a better indication of his confidence. He had never played Augusta National before this week but said he has been imagining this Sunday since he was a child. “I’ve holed the winning putt a million times,” he said.
Pieters, like Garcia, hits the ball long without ballooning it high into the air, where it would have been more affected by the high winds this week.
“No surprise he’s played well in the wind,” Fowler said. “He’s got a good ball flight for that.”
With a largely hand-picked field, the Masters often builds the best weekend leaderboard, and this year is no exception. Along with the four leaders there is William McGirt, the rising journeyman, at 2 under; Ryan Moore, Jon Rahm, Fred Couples and Justin Rose at 1 under; and Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson at even par.
According to the Golf Channel, eight times the Masters champion has been six shots or more behind after the second round. After two rounds, 18 players are within six shots of the lead. With sunshine and less wind forecast for the weekend, Pieters will have to fight off a talented leaderboard, but he probably won’t have to shush this gallery.