- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - Thomas Pieters has imagined himself sinking the winning putt at Augusta National countless times.

The 25-year-old Masters rookie from Belgium has a chance to make that happen after shooting a stellar 68 on Friday that left him in a four-way tie for the lead.

Pieters said he grew up watching the Masters and dreamed of success in the year’s first major, outdueling the game’s best to earn the green jacket.

“I’ve holed the winning putt about a million times,” he said. “Hopefully, one day” for real.

Maybe this Sunday.

Pieters has taken to the challenging layout at Augusta National like few first-timers in history. After previously playing the course only in practice this week, Pieters started 5-under on his first 10 holes. And then, Pieters lost the lead with two double-bogeys coming back in, including one on the 18th hole that might’ve rattled many competitors.

Instead, Pieters came right back at it in the second round, his eagle-birdie stretch on the 13th and 14th holes lifting him into a tie atop the leaderboard with Charley Hoffman, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler in his first career major.

“In my mind, it’s just golf,” Pieters said.

Pieters won the NCAA individual golf title at Illinois in 2012 and the Big Ten Conference individual title a year later. He turned pro in 2013 and two years later, won twice on the PGA European Tour.

Pieters was a captain’s pick for the European Ryder Cup team and went 4-1 in his matches - the best-ever showing for a European rookie in Ryder Cup history. “You know we lost so I really don’t care about that stat,” he said.

Much the way he doesn’t worry about how first-timers generally don’t play well at the Masters or how it takes time to get the feel of a layout like Augusta. “No,” he said flatly, “It doesn’t affect me.”

Just like holding a share of the Masters lead won’t dominate his night. He’s got too many friends and family with him to worry much about his prime position.

Pieters took a calculated approach to Augusta. He was hitting good, crisp shots, so he wanted to just keep swinging and let his ability shine. There was no better example than his approach to the 13th from the pine straw from about 200 yards away. Pieters relied on his strength and length to land the ball 9 feet from the pin and make the putt.

“It was quite a tough shot, but if I just carry the water,” Pieters said. “I knew it was going to be on the green.”

Pieters acknowledged he’s had to remind himself often to be patient since losing one’s cool and focus at Augusta is the fastest way to fall off the pace.

He plans to carry that same approach into Saturday, despite the heady position of teeing off in the Masters’ next-to-last pairing.

“If I just get in contention on Sunday afternoon,” he said. “That’s all I want.”

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