Pieters Credits Tight-Knit Illini Team for His Growth
April 1, 2014
Former University of Illinois golfer Thomas Pieters is the most recent Illini to make his dream of becoming a professional golfer come true just last year. Pieters chose to turn professional after leading the Illini to an NCAA runner-up finish in 2013. During his time at Illinois, he won the 2012 NCAA individual title, Illinois' second in the last three years, and helped the Orange and Blue to three consecutive Big Ten championships, running their string to five in a row.
Pieters started playing golf at age five along with the rest of his family after playing on holiday in South Africa. Originally from Nijlen, Belgium, Pieters chose to pursue golf and his education in the United States, but returned closer to home to compete on the European Tour in Belgium.
"I chose Illinois because I didn't really want to go somewhere really warm because I'm from a colder climate," Pieters said. "Also, I liked that they have a small and tight team and they made me feel very welcome during my visit. And, obviously, Coach Small was the main factor I decided on Illinois."
Illinois head coach Mike Small continues to be a draw to players at the Illinois program, as a former Illini himself, his expertise stems from his time as a professional player and highly touted collegiate coaching career. Small continues to impact Pieters' skill even now that he's moved on from Illinois. Pieters still calls Small for advice on his golf game and tries to come back to Champaign as much as he can. He says it's a confidence builder from the players and Coach Small when he comes back and it's a lot of fun chipping around with his former teammates.
"I can't thank Coach Small enough for what he did for me," Pieters said. "He helped me through rough periods in the start of my college career because I missed home so much. But also, I learned so many valuable life lessons from him and as a player, he really taught me how to compete and I think I did a pretty good job at that. I'm a quick learner."
Some of the best advice Pieters gives to those that want to follow in his professional golf shoes is to, "Listen to Coach Small. He knows best."
Illinois continued to guide Pieters on the right track as a player entering into his junior year. The summer before Pieters' junior season, he advanced to the round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur, became the first Belgian to make the European Palmer Cup team and was ranked No. 9 on Golf World's Top 50 Male Players to Watch for the 2012-13 season.
"It helped me grow up and become more mature because of the living by myself and handling going to school and playing golf at the same time," Pieters said of his time at Illinois.
The former Illini led his squad to a season to remember in 2013, as Illinois finished second in the nation after falling to Alabama in the final match of the NCAA Championships. The Orange and Blue defeated 2012 NCAA champion Texas and top-ranked California during the match-play portion after finishing fifth in stroke play. Illinois also won the Fayetteville Regional, the program's first regional title, and earned its fifth-straight Big Ten championship in 2013. Along the way, Pieters was named Big Ten Men's Golfer of the Year, fellow Belgian Thomas Detry was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and head coach Mike Small earned his fifth-straight and sixth career Big Ten Coach of the Year honor.
Pieters also recorded the fourth-best season stroke average in school history with a 71.38 mark over 34 rounds. He notched a team-best 16 rounds under par and four even-par rounds, and his 72.35 career stroke average ranks second in Illinois history, just behind Luke Guthrie's school-record 72.08 from 2008-12.
"Getting my tour card right away was a dream come true," Pieters said. "And a lot of changes have happened. I'm traveling all the time now, which feels like college, but I miss the team environment. I'm on my own all the time [now] so I miss my teammates.
"It's tough just being there on your own. Normally, you'll have a team or coach to straighten things out for you and now you've just got to do it by yourself, so that's been the hard part."
Since turning pro last summer, Pieters hasn't been in too many events yet, but he's excited to see where the rest of the season takes him and while traveling is a plus, it's also a struggle when mixed with his competition schedule as it can be very tiring and wear down his body. The European Tour travel varies drastically from the PGA Tour in the United States. Pieters has already competed in South Africa multiple times, along with Kenya and Morocco, and he will be heading to Malaysia soon. He says that the key to the heavy traveling is knowing when to book flights so there's time to rest before competing. As he continues to get used to the schedule, Pieters is also still working towards his goal of being on the PGA Tour in the future.
Long tapped as a top prospect for the future of European golf, Pieters progressed through all three stages of the 2013 European Tour Qualifying School, taking the 20th card at the final stage at PGA Catalunya Resort to join compatriot and Ryder Cup star Nicolas Colsaerts on The European Tour when he turned professional in June 2013.
On the same day as his professional debut, Pieters and Charlie Danielson were named a third-team PING All-American by the Golf Coaches Association of America. It marked the third-straight year that Illinois has had multiple PING All-Americans, after Pieters and Guthrie earned the honors in 2012, and Guthrie, Langley and Chris DeForest were All-Americans in 2011. Pieters says his success is due in great part to the help of his Illinois teammates: Langley, Guthrie, DeForest, Zach Barlow, Matt Hoffman, Mason Jacobs, Danielson, Detry, Alex Burge, Brian Campbell, Ross Frankenberg, Jonathan Hauter and David Kim.
"Going to the national final was one of my favorite moments at Illinois," Pieters said. "Seeing the support and all the people that came and watched us, and winning five straight Big Ten championships was a great feeling. I don't think getting my tour card was my favorite moment because I was so stressed that it wasn't a fun week at all."
Pieters says that he misses Illinois a lot now that he isn't around campus every day, and some of his fondest memories have been with his former Illini teammates, but today he appreciates being able to come back and soak in the school that helped guide him to his dream.