Belgian attacks put big week in perspective for Pieters

AP News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2016 4:43 PM
Belgian attacks put big week in perspective for Pieters

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — An important week of golf for Thomas Pieters quickly turned into a somber one for the 24-year-old Belgian.

"It was just one of the worst days to wake up," he said Wednesday.

His phone was buzzing before dawn. Everyone who called wanted to know the obvious: Was his family OK? Pieters spent the next four hours talking to his family in Antwerp and texting friends in Brussels, where two bombs in the airport and another at a subway station killed at least 31 and wounded nearly 200 others.

His family and most of his close friends are fine. He still had not heard from one friend who was in the Metro.

"So it's still a nervous time," Pieters said. "But we've heard that there's still a lot of people just stuck in the Metro, because there was only one exit to get out. And hopefully, he just comes out there."

The Dell Match Play starts Wednesday, and it's a big week for Pieters. A two-time winner on the European Tour, he is No. 57 in the world ranking and this is the final week before the top 50 earn invitations to the Masters. His first match is against Adam Scott.

Because the format is head-to-head, match play tends to bring out more raw emotion than regular tournaments.

"Yeah, I'm not going to moan this week, that's for sure," Pieters said. "It's just tough to understand. I just don't get it. So many innocent people."

Pieters is one of those players in their 20s loaded with potential. He played at Illinois, where in his sophomore year he won the individual NCAA title at Riviera. At 6-foot-6 with a powerful swing, he started this year by finishing runner-up to Rickie Fowler in Abu Dhabi.

He was planning to see Austin Country Club for the first time when he woke up sooner than expected. Pieters thought about the Paris attacks in November, and part of him realized it could happen in Belgium particularly with the arrest Friday of a key suspect in the Paris bombings.

That didn't make it any easier to digest.

"Even when it happened in Paris, it's close, but it's not right near your people," he said.

Pieters, accompanied this week by his sister, Liselotte, was last home three weeks ago before heading to Thailand for a European Tour event (he finished third), followed by a trip the following week to Florida for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first American tournament as a pro. He finished last among those who made the cut.

If he doesn't get into the Masters, he said he would head home, flying through London.

But it won't change his plans. In the last 20 weeks, Pieters has flown from Turkey to Shanghai, to the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Thailand. That's the travel schedule of a global golfer. Travel is the one aspect of his job he dislikes most, though that's largely from being away for long periods.

"I'm not scared to fly, but it does cross your mind sometimes," Pieters said. "But I think you can't live with fear. That's what they try to do. So I'm not going to change the way I fly or anywhere I go. If you're at the bad place at the bad time, then those guys win. But I don't think you should change the way you travel. It's just the way it is."

He said he has been at the Brussels airport "a million times," which made it harder to look at images and news pages that he refreshed every five minutes.

Pieters then ventured onto the practice range at Austin Country Club before playing a practice round ahead of the opening session of matches. He is in a group with Scott, Bill Haas and Chris Wood. The winner of the round-robin format advances to the knockout stage Saturday, which is at least as far as Pieters must get to have a reasonable chance to crack the top 50 in the world.

Even if he doesn't make it to Augusta National this year, it no longer feels imperative.

"It's just golf, isn't it?" he said.