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After the 2016 Ryder Cup, which featured the United States beating Europe 17-11 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, the heartbeat of the European side said something interesting about arguably the best player on the property that week.

Thomas Pieters went to that Ryder Cup -- his first ever -- on a tear. He'd won twice in 2015, again in 2016 and complemented that victory at the Made in Denmark with four other top 10s, including two runner-up finishes on the DP World Tour and a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics. But it was those three days at Hazeltine that represented his emergence on the global stage.

Pieters went 4-1-0 that week, and three of those wins came alongside Rory McIlroy, who looked a lot like the hearts-in-his-eyes emoji face in the post-event press conference.

"I've got a partner beside me for the next 20 years," said McIlroy. "I'm not letting anyone else have him. (The transcript adds that McIlroy ended the commentary by "putting arm around Thomas Pieters," which, as I remember the moment, is extremely unsurprising).

At the time, Pieters was ranked inside the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and he rose to as high as No. 23 after finishing inside the top five at the 2017 Masters just six months after that Ryder Cup debut. In his mid-20s, bending majors his direction and absolutely destroying at a Ryder Cup, his superstardom seemed imminent.

Then, as is so often the case in golf … it wasn't.

Pieters played well enough for the rest of 2017 and into 2018 but slowly and somewhat steadily dropped in the OWGR. First, outside the top 40. Then, outside the top 50. He has just one top 10 at a major after that 2017 Masters. He has qualified for just one more Masters after that 2017 Masters. This was not the trajectory his performance in 2016 implied. He went to the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush ranked No. 109 in the world and finished T67.

He won following that Open, but thereafter again tumbled down the OWGR. Pieters didn't play that much in 2020 because nobody on the DP World Tour played that much as COVID-19 spread around the world. In the summer of 2021, his world ranking kept dropping. He bottomed out at No. 131 in the world at the European Masters last August. Golfers with Thomas Pieters' talent should never be ranked No. 131 in the world.

Then, as is so often the case in golf … he wasn't.

Six months later, he's now exactly 100 spots higher after winning two of his last three events, including a tough Abu Dhabi Championship over the weekend to begin his year. On paper, it was the biggest win of his entire career, and he confirmed the one-stroke victory over Shubhankar Sharma and Rafa Cabrera Bello in sometimes-nasty, often-windy conditions at Yas Links in Abu Dhabi was monumental.

"It's fantastic," said Pieters after shooting 72 on Sunday for the victory. "You know, a lot of hard work, and my first thought was just, 'Finally.' Finally a really big event. I don't take anything away from the other wins, but this one definitely stands out for me."

Pieters never lost his game, not completely anyway. He just lost the minutia that is often the difference between top-25 golfers and top-125 golfers. According to DataGolf's interesting 50-round rolling average, Pieters played like a top-50 player in the world for almost two straight years with the Hazeltine Ryder Cup falling in the middle of that run. Since then, he's touched that top-50 marks a bit but never stayed inside it for any extended period of time. Now, as he enters what could be the prime of his career -- he turns 30 this week at the Dubai Desert Classic -- it seems as if he's primed to return to that previous form -- the form that had McIlroy googly-eyed in Minnesota.

As for the missing edge over these last few years, the thing that kept him from touching his ceiling, Pieters did not hesitate when he was asked about this on Sunday.

"The putting," he said. "Obviously that was kind of the missing link to my game for the past few years. And maybe just maturing a bit and taking the right decisions at the right times. I think I kind of showed that today by playing some boring golf coming in, but you have to be disciplined to make that decision."

He has always been an up-and-down putter, so it's not too surprising that this would fluctuate, although there does seem to be less volatility to it than there has been in the past. The part that's more interesting to me, however, is the decision-making -- that he's wiser and more boring, often an unheralded skill at the highest level of professional golf. 

The numbers back Pieters up. His distance off the tee has decreased slightly, and his accuracy has skyrocketed. Because of this, his strokes gained off the tee have increased. He's giving himself more and better opportunities, which, as he said, is not thrilling but it is rewarding.

Pieters should not miss a Ryder Cup in his 30s. He just shouldn't. As long as he's healthy, he should absolutely be on every European team that plays for the next 10 years. With a fading generation a decade -- or more -- ahead of him and few superstars behind him, Pieters can be -- and should be -- a pillar. He should play in Rome. He should win on the DP World Tour. He should contend at some major championships.

Whether that's how the next decade of his career goes remains to be seen, but with his confidence as high as it's been perhaps since that 2016 Ryder Cup, there is again a ton of excitement for not only what the rest of 2022 holds for Pieters but everything beyond it as well.