DUBAI — Ask any professional golfer how to make a course difficult and the starting point is always the same.
Throw in narrow fairways, thick rough—“brutal” was Eddie “at least I didn’t run out of balls” Pepperell’s description at the end of his 69—and a bit of wind, and you’ve neatly summed up the opening round of the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
It wasn’t quite carnage out there on the 7,642-yard Majlis course, but it was close at times. On a layout where Bryson DeChambeau shot a nifty 24 under par for 72 holes one year ago, the best score of a blustery day was Thomas Pieters’ five-under 67. How tough was it? As many as 103 of the 132-player field failed to break par, one of them being last week’s winner in Abu Dhabi, Lee Westwood. The 46-year-old Englishman shot a tired-looking 78.
Given the chewiness of the rough, even just off the single-file fairways, not to mention the number of sharp doglegs that made the landing-areas even more elusive, the players had two options. They could go with what has become the norm in modern professional golf, blasting away off the tee and taking their chances with approach shots struck from long grass. Or they could be cannier and concentrate more on accuracy from the tee, albeit they would then have longer second shots.
For Pieters it was an easy choice. For one thing, the fairways were so narrow even the straighter hitters on tour were missing more than they hit. And for another, as one of the longest hitters in the game, Pieters wasn’t about to change, rough or no rough. And it worked. Although the 27-year-old Belgian found just six fairways in a round highlighted by eight birdies and marred by a double bogey/bogey beginning to what was his back nine (he started on the 10th), he was still able to score.
“My drives and 3-woods weren’t very good today, but somehow I found the greens,” he said with a smile. “And if I did hit a fairway, I took advantage of it. I got lucky a few times. I was in the desert more than once but missed the bushes. I also played the par 3s very well. I’m hitting my irons pretty good—as I did last week—and I rolled in a few putts, which was nice. I haven’t seen that in a while. But the most satisfying aspect was bouncing back so well from the blip in the middle.”
Indeed, poor putting has been the root cause of Pieters’ decline from the heights of scoring four points in five matches at the 2016 Ryder Cup—a record for a rookie—to the relatively desultory play the last two seasons. As high as 41st in the World Rankings when he played so effectively at Hazeltine National over three years ago, he is currently the No. 84.
“I’ve been working on my putting real hard, so I came out hoping to see some progress,” Pieters said. “And I saw that today. Hopefully I can keep it up. The last couple of years I have struggled because of a lack of making putts. My scores didn’t match my play tee-to-green. The swing has been there and the ball-striking, but if you don’t make putts you can’t score. So for me that is the last thing that needs to improve.”
Maybe not quite the last thing. Asked for more background on what he has been working on, Pieters—whose often-volatile temper has been a regular feature of his recent struggles—reverted to the type of “smart” responses that have endeared him to precisely no one.
Q: “What exactly have you been working on in your putting?”
A: “Making them.”
Q: “Anything else?”
Q: “Nothing more specific?”
Q: “OK, were you under-reading or over-reading?”
Thank you, Thomas. And good night.