Yet in the final round of stroke-play competition at the 115th NCAA Championship, Pieters demonstrated he has become familiar with the finer points of the game too. Lessons learned since arriving stateside in the fall of 2010, working with Small to round out his game, helped the 20-year-old sophomore cap off a career-defining tournament. Driver wasn't the club that allowed Pieters to claim NCAA individual title Thursday afternoon. It was his wedge, which he used to save par on several occasions at Riviera CC and even make a birdie when it looked like his confidence was slipping away.
An even-par 71 gave Pieters a five-under 208 total, three strokes better than TCU's Julien Brun, who shot a closing 67 in the morning and hoped to see the leaders stumble, and Florida's Tyler McCumber. In the process, he joined Scott Langley (2010) as the school's second NCAA medalist in three years.
"I tried to think of this as just another tournament, but this is a big win," Pieters said. "It's pretty cool."
Unfortunately, Pieters' play couldn't help get the Fighting Illini into the match-play portion of the tournament. While Illinois was among a group of 11 schools within five strokes of the eighth and final berth into match play at the start of the day, the team shot a collective 19-over 303 in the third round to finish in 21st place, 12 strokes back of the cut.
Alabama held on to first place in the team standings, closing with a three-over 287 to outpace UCLA by two strokes. However, the identity of the Crimson Tide's first-round opponent was still unknown as the sun set in Southern California. With matching 23-over 875 scores, Kent State and Florida State will return to the course Friday morning in a playoff to decide who moves on as the No. 8 seed and who goes home.
Also advancing to match play, in order of finish, were top-ranked Texas, San Diego State, California, Washington and Oregon.
He was asked the usual questions about his round, what went into shooting the 68 that left him at five under for two days, two strokes ahead of UCLA's Anton Arboleda and Florida's Tyler McCumber. He was also asked about his team's chances in the third round, the Fighting Illni among a group of five schools tied for eighth, the cut line for qualifying for the match-play bracket that will decide the team champion this weekend.
And then the sophomore from Belgium addressed the most vexing query he would face: With the individual championship on the line Thursday as well as the chance for the team to advance to match play, how do you approach the third and final round?
"If the team gets in the top eight tomorrow, I will be happy," Pieters said. "If I win or not, it doesn't matter."
It's an admirable answer, selfless and if not a tad bit surprising.
It's also one that Pieters shouldn't have to make.
In this week's issue of Golf World, I wrote a column in our Voices section about the need for the NCAA to explore and, hopefully implement, a separate individual championship (click here to read the story). My logic was because of the exact scenario that Pieters faces.
Try bumper cars instead.
While only two teams within eight strokes of first-place Alabama after 36 holes, 11 schools within five strokes of the cut line for qualifying for match play. (For complete team leader board, click here.) The sheer number of teams still in the mix should leave the final round on George Thomas' historic little ball park is going to be nothing if not a crazy 12 hours.
The Crimson Tide maintained its spot atop the leader board with three-over 287 in the second round giving them a four-over 572 total. Sophomore Cory Whitsett paced the second ranked squad in the final Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll with a three-under 68 while freshman Justin Thomas posted his second straight 70.
"I didn't realize the golf course was playing that hard until I looked at a scoreboard on 14 and I was like 'OK,' " said Alabama coach Jay Seawell. "So I'm really proud of the guys. They really grinded out a good round today when it was easy not to. This golf course will beat you up if you allow it to. You have to stay tough."
Except, of course, when it doesn't.
Texas, the top-ranked team in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll, had flashes of brilliance during Wednesday's second round at Riviera CC. Toni Hakula made a hole in one on the sixth hole en route to a 71 while Dylan Frittelli finished birdie-eagle on the 17th and 18th holes for a 72. But with player-of-the-year candidate Jordan Spieth and Cody Gribble shooting 79s, the Longhorns posted an 11-over 295 to leave them 17 over, 13 strokes behind Alabama, the clubhouse leader among schools that have finished 36 holes.
"I don' t feel like we played ridiculously poorly," Fields said afterward. "It was a tough day today because we had to take a big score."
Suffice it to say, suffer from a viral infection wasn't necessarily the answer anyone expected.
Despite a spiking fever that waylaid the sophomore from La Canada, Calif., for three days after NCAA Regionals, Arboleda looked no worse for wear in his opening round as he used the local knowledge he's picked up from playing Riviera roughly 15 times during the 2011-12 season to his advantage. While stumbling a bit over the first nine holes, Arboleda played the back nine in five under par, making birdie putts from inside 10 feet on four of the holes to take a one-stroke advantage on Kent State's Corey Conners and Florida's Tyler McCumber.
Four days after the Alabama women's team claimed the NCAA title in Tennessee, the men's squad shot a one-over 285 at Riviera CC to take the Day 1 lead at the 115th NCAA Championship.
On a crystal clear day with afternoon winds making the greens crusty, Jay Seawell's squad finished strong, sophomore Bobby Wyatt making a 25-foot birdie putt on his last hole, the par-4 ninth, and freshman Justin Thomas following suit with a 14-foot birdie of his own to close out the round and give Alabama a three-stroke lead over Florida and Auburn.
Individually, UCLA's Anton Arboleda posted a four-under 67 to set the pace. The sophomore from La Canada, Calif., turned in one over, but then made five birdies on Riviera's back nine to take a one-stroke lead on Kent State's Corey Conners and Florida's Tyler McCumber.
Oh, and under the radar.
The sophomore from Listowel, Ontario, Canada (right) has quietly had an impressive season, posting a 71.8 stroke average (almost four shots better than in 2010-11) and winning the Mid-American Conference individual title earlier this month. In seven spring starts, he has yet to finish outside the top 25, posting six top-15 finishes.
So it is that the three-under 68 Conners posted during the first round of the 115th NCAA Championship Tuesday at Riviera CC shouldn't be all that surprising. While making birdies on the first, ninth and 13th holes, it was the fact that he didn't bogey any of the other 15th that was key to his round.
"I didn't do anything special," Conners said. "I just minimized my mistakes. That's key out here."
Indeed, Conners said the turning point of his round actually came at the par-3 14th hole. Coming off a birdie on 13, he missed the green but chipped to eight feet and made the par putt to maintain his momentum.
The 68 held up as the low round of the morning wave, matched by Florida's Tyler McCumber. The junior from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., also played bogey free to get to the top of the leader board.
"I thought I was very good mentally today," said McCumber, son of long-time PGA Tour pro Mark McCumber, who walked around Riviera during the round. "It wasn't a particularly great physical day, hitting it or putting it. I just didn't make any mistakes and just grounded it out all day."
Suffice it to say, this is likely going to be a common refrain from the players who have success in the afternoon wave as well. Par is going to be a golfer's friend this week at Riviera.
Just four other players from the morning wave--Oklahoma's Will Kropp, Illinois' Thomas Pieters and Iowa's Joseph Winslow at two-under 69 and Oklahoma's Abraham Ancer with a 70--managed to break par despite calm conditions greeting golfers for at least the first few hours of play.
McCumber helped the Gators post the low team score of the morning, a four-over 288, with Oklahoma one back and Florida State and Iowa two strokes behind.
-- n, -yus, -yu
1. tropical grass species native to East Africa that's a popular lawn surface in Australia, South African and Southern California
2. most likely excuse you'll hear from coaches when asked why their team missed out on match play at this week's NCAA Championship
PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--If you've ever watched the PGA Tour's Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC, then you're familiar with its famed kikuyu fairways and rough. But that's the thing, most golfers--even the elite amateur players who'll be competing this week for the national title--actually aren't familiar with the grass, or at least how to chip out of it.
As the 30 teams in the field worked their way around the famed George Thomas course Monday during their lone practice round, many spent extra time near the greens, doing their best to get comfortable with the knarly surface before the starter's gun is fired tomorrow.
Some schools even pulled out secret weapons to help their players adjust.
That said, there is something I root for at every tournament I cover: a good story. It's why the 31st NCAA Women's Championship will be one I remember for a while. There wasn't just one fun tale to tell from last Friday's finish at Vanderbilt Legends Club but a few.
Oklahoma's Chirapat Jao-Javanil won the individual title by four strokes, closing with a 2-under 70 to finish at 6-under 282.
The Crimson Tide gave coach Mic Potter his first national title and first for a program in its seventh trip to the national tournament when senior Brooke Pancake rolled in a 4-footer for par on No. 18. It's the third national title this year for Alabama, which also won in football and gymnastics, and sixth for the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama finished at 6-over 294 in the fourth round for a 19-over 1,171 total.
USC trailed Alabama by 14 strokes after 36 holes and by two going into the final round. The national champs in 2003 and 2008 tied the Crimson Tide five times atop the leaderboard and led by five strokes before losing the lead on the back nine. The Trojans shot 293 for a 1,172 total. They were followed by LSU (289-1,173) and Virginia (292-1,175), which lost a six-stroke lead in the first round when Elizabeth Brightwell signed an incorrect scorecard.
Jao-Javanil, ranked 59th by GolfStat and 41st by Golfweek, won the first women's individual title for Oklahoma.
The sophomore from Thailand had won two tournaments earlier this year at the Central District Invitational and the Golf Week Conference Challenge and finished second at the Big 12 Championship as she helped lead Oklahoma to its first league title since 2000. She finished fifth at the West Regional.
She started the final round tied with Guilia Molinaro of Arizona State and bogeyed No. 18, her ninth hole, to fall into a three-way tie. But Jao-Javanil (left) birdied No. 1 for a one-stroke lead over LSU's Tessa Teachman, while Molinaro bogeyed to fall to 2 under. Jao-Javanil wrapped up the title with a flourish on another tap-in birdie on the par-5 ninth.
Pancake tried to chase down Jao-Javanil and had plenty of holes to do it a pond away from the par-3 course where she first learned to play. But the Alabama senior from Chattanooga bogeyed No. 16 to fall four strokes back with two to play. Pancake shot 73-286. She was followed by Laura Gonzalez-Escallon of Purdue (70) and LSU's Teachman (74) at 287.
That left Pancake to help the Tide win the team title.
USC had gone up by five strokes reaching 13 over with Alabama at 18 over. The Trojans had three bogeys on the par-3 No. 16 and finished with eight bogeys and one double bogey in the final five holes combined to just come up short after Sophia Popov birdied No. 18.
Alabama had a four-stroke lead when Hannah Collier birdied Nos. 17 and 18. But Jennifer Kirby set up the dramatic finish with a double-bogey on the final hole. Chipping from behind the green, her ball went only a few feet, and her next chip went about 6 feet past the hole before Kirby two-putted. Inah Park then rolled in a 5-footer for birdie, pulling USC within a stroke of Alabama at 20 over.
Pancake laid up on the par-5 18th with her third shot landing in the trees just left of the fairway. Her shot onto the green wound up about 60 feet from the hole, a shot that would have been perfect for the third-round pin. Pancake hit the right side of the cup, and the ball looked like it might go in before going 4 feet past for par. She holed out the par putt to start Alabama's latest celebration.
Photos by J.D. Cuban