Golf

Ryder Cup star Thomas Pieters vows to stay loyal to European Tour

STANDFIRST

Thomas Pieters plays on the PGA Tour again this week but has no intention of becoming a regular
By Phil Casey, PA Sport Golf Correspondent

RYDER Cup star Thomas Pieters has vowed to remain loyal to the European Tour, even if he continues to taste success on the other side of the Atlantic.

Pieters enjoyed the most successful debut by a European rookie in last year's loss at Hazeltine, winning four of his five matches in the 17-11 defeat.

That performance brought the 25-year-old Belgian to the attention of the wider golfing public in the United States, where he won an NCAA individual title while attending the University of Illinois.

And by finishing joint second in the Genesis Open thanks to a closing 63 at Riviera, Pieters could secure special temporary membership of the PGA Tour with his performance in this week's Honda Classic.

However, the world number 33 has no intentions of abandoning the European Tour and has already told Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn he plans to be part of the team at Le Golf National in 2018.

"I'm really close to my family, I love living at home and I'm a new uncle now, which is really exciting," Pieters, whose sister gave birth to a son three months ago, told a pre-tournament press conference.

"Even when I go away for three weeks, I do miss my family. That's why I'm going to keep playing in Europe and for the Ryder Cup, as well. I told Thomas Bjorn that I'm not going to leave his tour and I'm dedicated to playing in Europe and being in that Ryder Cup team.

"I just love playing in Europe. Even going to the Swedish Open or KLM Open, I love the atmosphere and seeing different cultures and cities."

Pieters is part of a strong European contingent at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens which includes 2015 winner Padraig Harrington, Russell Knox, Paul Casey, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia, Matt Fitzpatrick and Danny Willett.

Garcia finished just a shot behind Adam Scott last year with McDowell fifth, while Knox, Casey and Ian Poulter were joint third behind Harrington.

"It must be the weather and the toughness of the course maybe," Pieters added when asked to explain such results.

"We play a lot of tournaments where you might win with a couple under par or nine or 10, and we very rarely are at tournaments where you have to shoot 25 under par and I feel like that happens more over here.

"I'm not saying it's easier over here or anything. I think the courses are set up a lot differently but we play maybe in a lot of worse weather than these guys do. And maybe we're just used to a lot of wind and tough conditions I think."

SOUTH Africa's Jaco Van Zyl feels he is finally ready to win on the European Tour ahead of this week's Joburg Open.

Van Zyl has won 14 times on the Sunshine Tour but has suffered a number of frustrating near misses on the European Tour, most recently three-putting the first play-off hole in the Qatar Masters three weeks ago.

The world number 92 has finished runner-up a total of five times, including at this week's venue of Royal Johannesburg and Kensington, where he also finished third in 2012.

"It really feels like I have broken through that extra barrier," said Van Zyl, who will celebrate his 38th birthday on Thursday.

"I'm feeling a lot more comfortable in the position and I feel like I can be in charge when I am in that position instead of backing off a little bit.

"So I think it's really close and I know I have been saying it for a little while, but hopefully this year is going to be the breakthrough.

"It doesn't matter how good you are or how well-prepared you are. If you don't feel like you belong here, you are not going to achieve."

An added incentive this week is that the top three players who finish in the top 10, who are not already exempt, will earn a place in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

Defending champion Haydn Porteous did precisely that 12 months ago and went on to finish 30th at Royal Troon, but the 22-year-old made just one more cut during the rest of the season and began his 2017 campaign with six missed cuts in succession.

"It's been a tough six months with the swing changes I've been working on," said Porteous, who finally ended his poor run of results by finishing 26th in Malaysia a fortnight ago.

"There was a part of me that didn't believe I was consistent enough to play on the world stage. I got a little bit too into the game and maybe a little bit too technical with the golf swing.

"Then I lost a bit of confidence on unfamiliar grasses and different golf courses and in different conditions. It was tough to play with the sort of confidence I can play with back home.

"It was eye-opening and I knew that last year was going to be a difficult learning experience just to see what it was like to play in Europe. This year, I know what I'll need to do and hopefully I can build confidence in this new swing that I've invested in and I can put a few decent performances together."

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