INTERVIEW: Rayhan Thomas determined to reach the very top

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Growing up on tour: Rayhan Thomas.

Like most golfers, the Old Course at St Andrews, the venerated Home of Golf, tops Rayhan Thomas’ bucket list of golf courses to play.

Earlier this summer, the 16-year-old Dubai-born Indian amateur was in Scotland to take part in five junior tournaments, and as luck would have it, there was an opportunity to play his dream course. But despite the temptation, Thomas refused to take up the offer.

“I really want to play the Old Course. I love links courses and obviously, the Old Course is so much more than just a great links course,” said Thomas. “But I told myself: ‘Not now. I will play the Old Course, but in 2020…I will play it when it hosts the next Open Championship.”

That just sums up Thomas, the teenager who has taken the MENA Golf Tour by the scruff of its neck and made it his own. There wasn’t an iota of boastfulness. The sentence only reeked of the highest level of belief in his own ability. It was delivered with steely determination, rather than dreamy aspirations.

A fortnight ago, Thomas created history when he became the first amateur to win a tournament. The title at Dubai Creek, his home course, always looked a possibility. He finished second there last year after a play-off following a superb summer in the UK, where he won the prestigious Scottish Boys title, and Thailand, where he finished second and third in two MENA Tour events.

The win came with many perks – it earned him plenty of amateur and professional world ranking points apart from almost guaranteeing him a place in next year’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic – and also a chance for Thomas to take his father’s shiny Breitling watch off his wrist.

John Thomas had caught his son ogling at his watch several times and promised last year that it would be his if he wins on the MENA Tour. Turns out, Rayhan declined that offer too…with a good reason.

“That Dubai Creek week was also his birthday. So I let him keep the watch. But honestly, at the moment, the win itself is my gift. I am teeing up at events expecting to win golf tournaments, and it is very pleasing when I am able to do that,” he said.

Denying himself instant gratification and looking at things long-term seems to be the key to Thomas’ success. He realises there are no shortcuts, and he is more than willing to go the extra yard to become a better golfer.

Last year, after he secured the Emirates Golf Federation’s men’s Order of Merit title, a year after winning the junior Order of Merit, Thomas, dad John and mum Meena, along with coach Justin Parsons, took an almost unprecedented step for an Indian family – at the age of 15, they decided to take him out of school, start home schooling, enabling golf to become his priority.

Thomas has already more than justified that step – his world ranking in amateurs has risen from nearly 5,000 at the start of 2015 to 264. With MENA Tour events also carrying official world ranking points from this season, he is also No. 852 among professionals.

“That was a big decision. It really helped me give priority to golf. I can now practice for five-six hours daily, and I do not have to bother about my school attendance if I want to play a tournament,” added Thomas, whose family are originally from Cochin. “I need to give credit to my parents. I know how lucky I am to have their support.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Thomas’ golf is his ability to define his weaknesses, and then attack it with gusto.

When speaking to Sport360 last year, Thomas earmarked two goals for 2016 – get physically fit so that he is able to walk 18 holes or more without losing energy, and move into contention more regularly on the MENA Tour.

rayhan

He has achieved both – he is a strapping young man now who spends a considerable amount of time in the gym getting fitter and stronger – and four top-three finishes in his last six MENA starts is an enviable stat, even for seasoned pros.

Thomas said the turning point for him was qualifying for the Qatar Masters earlier this year and then playing the two rounds with Europe’s finest in Doha Golf Club, known for its brutal conditions, especially because of strong wind.

Most 16-year-olds would be overawed by the occasion, but Thomas approached it as a learning experience.

“Playing the Qatar Masters really opened my eyes. To see the cut going at one-under, set me thinking. It really was an experience playing with the professionals,” said Thomas. “I came back and had a long chat with Justin. I wanted to change so many things. I wasn’t happy with my ball flight, to begin with. My putting was not up to the mark. I wasn’t happy with my focus on the course.

“We worked on my swing and on the mental side of golf. I think I am very happy with how I think on the golf course now. Breathing technique and yoga helped. I have changed my pre-shot routine and generally, my practice also has a very good routine. Once I am on the golf course, I am able to shut everything else out and just focus on one target.”

With his amateur ranking moving rapidly towards the top 100, Thomas is looking forward to playing some of the biggest events next year, like the US and British Amateurs. Before that, there is the prestigious Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Korea from October 6-9. The winner of the tournament earns entry into the Masters and Open Championship next year.

“The Asia-Pacific Amateurs is one of the biggest events that I have played so far, with perhaps the strongest field in amateur golf I have faced. I am very excited about it.

“I am aware the winner gets into the Masters. But I will try not to think about it.

“You know, I definitely want to play the Masters…if not next year, I will be there the year after, or the year after that. It will happen one day if I keep working hard.

“Every time I step on to the tee, I expect to win now. And it will be no different in Korea. Next year is going to be very interesting with some bigger events to play. I am not bothered about the rankings. I know if I keep playing well, I will keep getting invitations and the rankings will take care of itself.”

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Balmaseda clinches MENA Tour title with eagle in playoff

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Balmaseda with the trophy.

The 44-year-old Spaniard produced a spectacular approach to hit the green in two at the par-5, 18th and holed the 18-foot putt, beating England’s Luke Joy, who had eagled the same hole in regulation to force a playoff at six-under.

Both players birdied the first two extra holes to extend play, but the Spaniard, who closed with a 70, atoned for his bogey-bogey finish in regulation with a solid putt in a nerve-racking finish.

Joy, a two-time Tour winner, had lost another play-off a couple of weeks ago to amateur Rayhan Thomas at the Dubai Creek Open.

Thomas continued his brilliant run as he carded a 71 after making the turn at two-over to finish in a tie for third at five-under. Max Williams of England, Antonio Costa of Chile and the Swedish duo of Fredrik Lindblom and Per Barth also joined him on that score.

“I am absolutely delighted. It feels special to win one for the family as I am one of the MENA Golf Tour’s ambassadors,” said Balmaseda after receiving the trophy from Khalid Zarouni, president of Dubai Sports City.

Mohamed Juma Buamaim, chairman of the Tour, and Chris Brown, general manager, The Els Club Dubai, were also present.

“I try to be relaxed in play-offs and that attitude paid off. Of the seven play-offs that I have been involved in my professional career, I have won six. So, the confidence was there,” added Balmaseda, who has two runner-up finishes on the MENA Tour. “Luke is a great player and I needed to focus hard.”

England’s Joy, who closed with a 71, felt he had his chances but didn’t play great on the front nine, which he covered in two-over par.

“It was nice to finish with an eagle and force a play-off. I think it’s time I start winning the trophies again. I am knocking on the door and hope it will open soon,” said Joy.

In one of the major highlights of the final round, England’s Joshua White showed impressive powers of recovery after a dreadful start to his final round.

The 2014 MENA Golf Tour Order of Merit champion responded to an early triple bogey on the par-5 fifth with three straight birdies before making the turn at one-over.

Six birdies and an eagle highlighted his sublime back-nine that he completed in six-under 30 en route to a closing 67 that propelled him to tied eighth on four-under par.

“It was kind of a roller coaster round,” said White, who holds the record for the lowest 18-hole score on the Tour, a nine-under 62 he shot at the 2014 event in Al Ain.

India’s Thomas took the leading amateur honours while the Moroccan duo of Faycal Serghini and Ahmed Marjan shared the leading MENA Division professional award after they finished on one-under-par for the tournament.

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Lee takes Route 66

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Man on a mission: Lee Corfield will be looking for his fifth title

Starting the day four shots off the pace, Corfield strung together the tournament’s low score to reach seven-under for the tournament, two shots ahead of fellow Englishman Luke Joy and Sweden’s Per Barth.

Overnight joint leader Rayhan Thomas of India slipped to tied fourth on four-under after carding a 73, a triple bogey on the 10th hole and two three-putt bogeys after that spoiling what was turning into an impressive card on a demanding golf course that played long and featured some tough pin positions.

Spain’s Carlos Balmaseda, Oscar Hertzberg of Sweden and England’s Max Williams completed the group on four-under as seven players, including Shahid Javed of Pakistan and Craig Hinton, who shared the overnight lead, moved into a tie for eighth a further shot adrift on three-under.

“I played some good, solid golf. I made six birdies and five bogeys in the first round, but today I kept the bogeys off my card, which is always the key to going low,” said Corfield, a four-time winner on the MENA Golf Tour, who has been struggling with back issues and played a limited schedule this year.

“You never know what tomorrow holds, but I feel like I am playing nicely. Will see how things pan out.”

In-form Thomas started strong, making three birdies in his first four holes, but hit the roadblock on the 10th when a wayward drive went right into the desert. He tried to hack it out from there but went deeper into the sand, and then had to declare his ball unplayable.

“I was cruising along nicely having got off to another great start, but one bad hole changed the whole look of the card. Take that away and I think I played really well. I am just three shots off the pace and very much in with chance,” said the Dubai-based 16-year-old amateur.

Morocco’s Faycal Serghini shot a 71 to return to the top of the leaderboard in the MENA Division on one-under, two shots ahead of compatriot Ahmed Marjan who stumbled to a 77 after opening with a 68.

“I think I played really well. Things could have been even better, but made a bogey-bogey finish, which was a bit disappointing,” said Serghini, who is coming off a tendon injury in his left hand that kept him out of competitive golf for two months.

Playing in his first season on the MENA Golf Tour, Australia’s Ryan Laird provided the highlight of the day when he aced the par-3, 17th for the first hole-in-one of his career.

The 22-year-old from Melbourne smashed his six-iron from 221 yards to achieve the feat as he returned a second-round 72 to move to tied 33rd from overnight 44th spot.

England’s Andrew Marshall, who won last week’s Shaikh Maktoum Dubai Open, carded back-to-back 71s for a share of 15th along with his compatriot Zane Scotland, an 11-time winner on the MENA Golf Tour.

The cut was made at three-over 147 with 47 professionals and 13 amateurs making it to the final round.

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