Man of steel Pieters, Rahm ready for Masters showdown

by Charles WHELAN
Man of steel Pieters, Rahm ready for Masters showdown

Augusta (United States) (AFP) - Two newcomers with nerves of steel, Thomas Pieters of Belgium and Spain's Jon Rahm, are both handily placed Saturday to create an upset as the Masters third round begins.

Pieters, 25, ranked 35 in the world, is in a four-way share of the lead with Rickie Fowler and Charley Hoffman of the United States and Spain's Sergio Garcia while Rahm, 22, is just three shots further back and ready to pounce after two rounds.

Outsider Pieters, who had never played Augusta National until this week, nevertheless says he knows exactly what to do on the final hole if he is in with a chance come Sunday.

"Oh, I've holed the winning putt about a million times," said the Belgian, who started playing the game at age five and grew up watching the Masters every year on TV in his native Belgium.

"Yeah, I've watched it my whole life, as do all those guys. We've all had that in practice, that winning putt. Hopefully one day."

Pieters, who won three European tour events and finished tied 30th in the British Open, hit a four-under-par 68 in the second round on Friday to jump to the top of the leaderboard on four-under 140 on a day when more experience campaigners suffered in the brutal winds that made every approach shot a gamble at Augusta National.

"Well, I've been hitting really good shots. Even the ones where I made double yesterday, I felt like I hit good shots," said the man who finished fourth at the Olympics last year.

Top players like Australia's Jason Day, who just made the cut, and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, on one over 145, were made to suffer in the blustery conditions in which Pieters said even poor scores were respectable.

- More birdies -

He said the par-five 15th hole, a potential birdie hole among the easiest on the course, was a case in point.

"Yesterday on 15, I hit six good shots and I made a six, and that hurts really bad," said Pieters, from Antwerp.

"But when you walk off and you tell yourself you hit six good shots, then what else can you do? That's just golf and that's Augusta, I guess."

The sun was shining Saturday from cloudlesss blue Georgia skies as the players prepared to tee-off for the third round and the forecast for the weekend is for calmer weather, a prospect that pleases Pieters.

"I feel like it's going to play a bit easier and make a bit more birdies," he said

Pieters or Rahm, the Spaniard who is rated as one of the most exciting new talents in golf, could become the first newcomers to Augusta to win the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. But that is nothing but a statistic to Pieters.

"It's just a stat," he said. "It's just like, you know, as the best rookie on the Ryder Cup team. You know we lost. So I don't really care about that stat."

Neither pressure nor the mystique of Augusta weighs on the Belgian and he won't be losing any sleep about being at the top of the leaderboard.

"In my mind, it's just golf," he said.