Belgian Knockout Preview, Picks & Analysis
ALL eyes will be on the home trio of Thomas Pieters, Thomas Detry and Nicolas Colsaerts for the second staging of the the Belgian Knockout, won last year by Adrian Otaegui.
The European Tour returned to Belgium for the first time since 2000 last season for the innovative event, as Pieters hosted the tournament at Rinkven International Golf Club. Pieters clan will play host again as the full field plays two days of strokeplay before a cut to 64 players, with separate play-offs to get each half of the draw down to 32. The remaining players will be seeded based on their performance over the first two days and then face off over nine holes of strokeplay knockout, with the player with the lowest score after nine holes advancing.
The first three rounds of knockout action will cut the field from 64 to eight on Saturday, with the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final taking place on Sunday to decide who will succeed Otaegui as champion.
Pieters was eliminated in the first knockout round last year and is determined to do better this time. "It's cool to know 95 per cent of the crowd personally," he said. "It's a cool feeling and I look forward to many more years of that."
Pieters is regarded by some as something of an underachiever but last season he had just four finishes outside the top 35. He then arrived at the World Cup of Golf full of confidence, and he and Detry lifted the trophy after finishing three shots clear of the field.
Detry also exited his home event in the last 64 but 2018 was an excellent year for the young Belgian, with six top 10s helping him to finish 31st on the Race to Dubai.
With that sort of consistency, many feel a maiden European Tour win will not be far away for the 26-year-old, and he admits that it would be a dream come true to claim his first win at Rinkven International. “Last year’s tournament was spectacular," he said. "The course was really fun. Whenever you made a birdie there was a lot of people. It was pretty special."
Colsaerts is the most senior of the leading Belgian trio and reached the last eight in 2018. The 36-year-old is also looking forward to playing on home soil again. "The tree-lined venue made it packed," he said. "You could play a few holes where it was lined up on each side and people surrounding the greens, it was actually quite cool to feel that buzz and having the chance to do that at home is something."
Unsurprisingly, the tournament has not drawn the strongest field of the year, but it gives many of the European Tour’s likely lads an opportunity to make a name for themselves in the absence of the likes of Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Wallace. After his third-place finish at the US PGA Championship, Wallace has admitted that his priorities have changed. He defended his Made in Denmark title last week but said he is now only focused on winning the Race to Dubai after moving up to 25th in the world rankings following his performance at Bethpage Black. Wallace won three times in 2018 and was second at the British Masters before finishing the week as the leading European at the season’s second major - only Brook Koepka and Dustin Johnson finished ahead of him.
He said that smaller events on the European Tour may struggle to attract some of the world's leading stars. "My schedule is pretty locked in," Wallace said. "I'll try to win the Race to Dubai now. I have a great chance. It's still quite early on in the season, but I am in a nice position to try to accomplish that. That's a goal of mine for sure. I have the best schedule possible and that includes a lot of European Tour events.” Sadly, the Belgian Knockout is not one of them.
So who are the men most likely to prevent Colsaerts, Detry and Pieters from winning? The field includes proven winners Tom Lewis, Alex Levy, defending champion Otaegui, Bernd Wiesberger, Marcus Kinhult, George Coetzee.
After four successive missed cuts, Kinhult caused something of a surprise by winning the British Masters earlier this month. But he had shown some decent form earlier in the season, with a top-20 finish in the Saudi International.
That win at the British Masters came after he dropped shots at the 15th and 16th holes in the final round and seemed to have thrown his chance away. But he responded superbly with birdies at the final two holes to secure a one-shot victory. It has been largely forgotten that he made headlines when he became only the third amateur to lead a European Tour event at the halfway stage after opening with 68-67 at the Nordea Masters on home soil in 2015. Then just 18 years old he ultimately shared 33rd place in his second European Tour appearance. He enjoyed three top-five finishes last season after securing a return to the European Tour by finishing in the top 15 of the Challenge Tour Rankings. The son of a golf professional, he started playing the game at six years old and showed huge potential, winning the 2015 Junior Invitational and representing Europe in the Junior Ryder Cup in 2014. And the Swede is still only 22 years old.
Coetzee is an enigma. Now 32 years of age, he is a four-time winner on the European Tour but most observers believe that he has failed to live up to his potential - and your correspondent is one of them. He is a brilliant ball striker and he has the touch of an angel on the greens.
Yes, he finished second at the Qatar Masters. Yes he was sixth at the Indian Open, but he had a dreadful weekend in India and he also missed the cut at the British Masters. This is a golfer who should be comfortably within the top 50 in the world rankings. His position? 223rd. It makes no sense until you watch him with a wedge in his hands around the greens. If there is any opportunity to use a putter he will take it. Many golfers have the yips with a putter in their hands. Some have the same affliction with a wedge. Sadly, Coetzee is one of those, and it is actually a testimony to the strength of the rest of his game that he is still able to win tournaments and compete at the highest level.
Speaking of enigmas, how will Oliver Wilson fare this week? This is a man who has reached the heights and plumbed the depths in equal measure but who finally seems to have found some peace. After losing his card again he returned to the Challenge Tour in 2018 and, lo and behold, won twice and regained his playing privileges. Would it be another false dawn? Early results would seem to indicate otherwise. He has already had four top-eight finishes, include a runner-up spot at the Qatar Masters. Like Lewis, he has proved that hard work, determination and huge doses of self-belief really can pay off.
Thomas Pieters. Desperate to win on home soil
Oliver Wilson. Has finally turned the corner
Thomas Detry. First win can’t be far away
Thomas Pieters. Ready for another win
Oliver Wilson. Has finally become a feel-good story
Thomas Detry. Massively impressive young Belgian
Nicolas Colsaerts. Fantastic ball striker
George Coetzee. The European Tour’s great enigma
Tom Lewis. Now a big-time player again
Alex Levy. Looking to kick-start his season
Adrian Otaegui. Proven winner
Bernd Wiesberger. Getting there, slowly but surely
Marcus Kinhult. Could be a huge star in the making
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