Pieters, Points are latest Illinois tour players who bear watching

We’ve always given the broadest definition to the pro golfers classified as “local players.’’ Players who resided a significant period of time in Illinois or attended college in the Prairie State all fit the criteria. After all, Illinois is a welcoming place for golf talent, and the more the merrier.

Still, Luke Donald and Kevin Streelman have been head and shoulders above the rest for several years. Now, however, that may be changing. It’s not that Donald or Streelman is backing off in their play on the PGA Tour. It’s just that they have a couple challengers now. It’s hard to ignore what D.A. Points and Thomas Pieters have done in the first four months of 2017.

While Donald and Streelman are still prominent players, this is a good time to get re-acquainted with Points and learn what Pieters is all about as well. They made the most noise among “local’’ players through Masters week.

Points, after two very difficult seasons, got back in the swing of things with his victory in the Puerto Rico Open. That was huge for him career-wise, though the Pekin and University of Illinois product proved he could win long before that. Puerto Rico was his third win on the PGA Tour and he also won four times as a Web.com Tour players.

The win at Puerto Rico, however, came with a glimpse of the Points of old. In the final round he made birdies on the first five holes and he also birdied four of the last six to win by two shots. Those birdie binges in a pressure situation were both eye-opening for spectators and provided a much-needed confidence boost for Points.

Like Pieters, Points played collegiately at Illinois but only for two seasons. He spent his first two years at Clemson before transferring. He won the Illinois State Amateur three times in a four-year stretch before turning pro but only played in the Illinois Open once, finishing second to Todd Tremaglio in 1998. Players from downstate weren’t as prevalent in the Illinois Open in the 1990s as they are now.

Points turned pro in 1999 and his biggest moment so far came in 2011 when he captured the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as an individual and also teamed up with comedian Bill Murray to win the team portion of the event. Murray’s on-course antics certainly didn’t distract Points that week.

Two years later Points won the Shell Houston Open, and that event – the last under Shell’s sponsorship – was also encouraging this year. Points followed his March victory in Puerto Rico with a tie for 23rd at Houston. The successes came after he switched to a left hand low putting stroke, a decision that helped Points’ bank account quickly.

More importantly, he will get into some of the biggest tournaments again thanks to the victory. The win didn’t get him into the Masters, because Puerto Rico was the secondary stop to the WGC-Mexico that week, but he will get into The Players this month at Florida’s TPC Sawgrass as well as the PGA Championship in August.

He’ll also have spots in two well-paying invitational events in between – the Memorial and Colonial. For a guy who had dropped to No. 254 in the world ranking in the past two years that’s a big boost.

The 6-5 Pieters hasn’t won on the PGA Tour yet but he’s bound to have a breakthrough on that front soon. He’s been coming on like gangbusters the last two years after winning the NCAA title while with the Illini in 2012 and being medalist in the Big Ten tournament in 2013.

He decided to forego his senior season and turned pro with good results immediately. As a rookie on the European PGA Tour in 2014 he lost the Spanish Open title in a playoff to Miguel Angel Jimenez. The following year he won the Czech Masters and KLM Open in consecutive tournaments and 2016 was even better.

Pieters, 25, just missed winning an Olympic medal, finishing fourth in Brazil behind Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar. Then he won his third European PGA title at the Made in Denmark tournament and that led to European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke make him a captain’s pick for the matches at Hazeltine. Though his team lost Pieters compiled a sparkling 4-1 record in his matches.

And he got even better in the first four months of 2017.

A final round 63 enabled him to tie for second in the Genesis Open at Los Angeles’ famed Riviera course and he followed with a tie for fifth at the World Golf Championship-Mexico. Those strong finishes gave Pieters special temporary status on the PGA Tour, which means he’s already locked up his card for 2018.

And he got even better after that.

Pieters contended in his first Masters, eventually tying for fourth behind champion Sergio Garcia after going the 72 holes at Augusta National in 5-under-par.

As good as he’s become, getting to know Pieters on the PGA Tour won’t be a simple task. He prefers playing in Europe and headed back across the pond after the Masters. He wants to play for Europe in the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris and will explore combining his schedule on the both the American and European PGA tours after that. Such a feat wouldn’t be easy but isn’t unprecedented. Donald did it successfully for several years. for example.

“I have a lot of time off now, as I’m only playing in two or three (tournaments) in the next two-three months,’’ Pieters said before departing. With the success he’s had Pieters can afford to focus on just the biggest tournaments for the rest of this year.

Don’t read this as a suggestion that Points and Pieters have supplanted Donald and Streelman at the top of the local players’ brigade. They haven’t, but it’s nice to see that Donald and Streelman have some local company in the ranks of successful tour players now.