After playing a round of golf with four-time major winner Rory McIlroy ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic last month, Indian golf sensation Rayhan Thomas says he dreams of one day winning the prestigious tournament in his home city.
The 18-year-old received a belated birthday present in January when he enjoyed a leisurely nine holes with Northern Ireland’s McIlroy – a two-time champion in Dubai – while also receiving a sponsor’s invite to play at Emirates Golf Club.
And a European Tour win at Emirates Golf Club in the future is a burning ambition for Thomas.
“That would be a home open for me or the Indian Open. To play in the Classic and get a win there one day as a professional, that would be awesome,” Thomas, the world number 1,053, told Sport360.
“Rory (McIlroy) was awesome. To get the practice round in initially, for him to ask me to come play nine holes and then to play with him and watch what he does, he’s just a really great guy and I’m just really grateful to be able to get the opportunity to play with him.”
After a host of superb wins in the previous two years on the amateur circuit, including winning the 2016 Dubai Creek Open in the city he has called home for most of his life, many are anticipating when Thomas will likely turn professional.
But the man himself admits that remains some way in the future, with the talented youngster eyeing college in America first in the autumn of 2019.
“I think I’m still a way off,” he added. “I’ve still got a lot of swing work and growing to do, and I think college will really help me do that. Maybe in another three or four years, but I’m not really thinking about that right now.”
Thomas, who turned 18 last November, has accepted a scholarship to the famed Oklahoma State University, whose alumni include world number seven Rickie Fowler and number 16 Alex Noren, as well as a host of other stars like Hunter Mahan, Peter Uihlein and Bo Van Pelt.
And with turning pro a goal eventually for Thomas, he insists Oklahoma is the right place to further his development.
“It was my first choice and when they came in and said they were interested I jumped on the wagon,” said Thomas, who heads Stateside in September 2019.
“It’s one of the most successful golf teams. I’ve spoken to the coach a lot and the roster is fantastic so overall, with the facilities, the location, it’s a quiet little town so will allow me to focus on golf. It seemed like the right place for me.”
Darren Clarke, winner of the 2011 Open Championship and 2016 European Ryder Cup captain, described Thomas as a “huge talent” last September after the MENA Tour prodigy fired a magical 10-under 61 – including nine birdies in a row – in the second round of the Dubai Creek Open.
He eventually finished tied for second as the tournament’s defending champion, but admits he’ll play more amateur events in 2018.
“I’ll be playing a lot of amateur stuff this year, we’ve got the Asian Games coming up which I want to qualify for,” he added.
“There’s the Eisenhower Trophy too I want to try and qualify for and the British Amateur.
“I have some really big amateur events and I really want to plan for those.”
At the Gary Player Invitational in Abu Dhabi last month, he featured alongside this year’s European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn, as well as legendary nine-time major winner Player himself. And even in the more relaxed environment, Thomas said he was still absorbing useful information.
“I have fun and just try to pick up as many things as I can from these pros, these guys who have been doing it a long time,” he said. “Picking up any little bits will help me when I eventually go pro someday.”
Nine days ago he was celebrating a share of third place with Rory McIlroy and taking home a cheque for €138,024 (Dh630,000). This week, Matt Fitzpatrick has only a missed cut and empty pockets to take away with him from the UAE.
His 2018 began in scintillating form at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the Sheffield native shooting an -18 under par 270, just four shots behind champion Tommy Fleetwood.
But while McIlroy went on to contend for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title a week after Abu Dhabi, eventually finishing second, a few “freak” occurrences left Fitzpatrick flitting around the Emirates ahead of participating in Monday’s Gary Player Invitational.
Despite going from high to low so quickly, the 23-year-old isn’t letting himself get too downtrodden by his performance.
“I feel like my game’s in good shape, I’ve got a bit of time to work hard at it again now and get it going for the rest of the year,” Fitzpatrick, a member of Europe’s 2016 Ryder Cup squad, said at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
“I had a bad Thursday. One bad hole Friday, I chipped into the water that cost me a double bogey, I don’t do that.
“I could have saved four shots just like that and, before you know it, I’m three shots inside the cut line and pushing to stay for the weekend. It was a freak day Thursday and a freak shot Friday.”
Despite carding a +1 over par opening round of 73 following four bogeys, Fitzpatrick recovered on Friday to shoot a fairly flawless 67, apart from a double bogey on four when he found water.
He missed the cut despite a total of -4 under and added: “It was disappointing. A few bad holes cost me on the Thursday. It was good to see the scores so low but it would have been nice to see a bit more rough. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Fitzpatrick has fond memories of Dubai, he won his third European Tour title at the 2016 DP World Tour Championship, held at Jumeirah Golf Estates. And he insists his Emirates Golf Club woes won’t sour his achievements in the city.
He added: “It’s not soured Dubai for me. It’s early in the year, the second event on the calendar. It’s a long season. If I win events now it’ll go straight out of my mind. Put it out of my mind and it’s now time to work on my game and get it sharp.”
Li Haotong pipped Rory McIlroy to the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club by a single shot – and the stats show there is one part of his game that ultimately clinched the title.
Li was ranked nowhere when it came to length off the tee and greens in regulation – but when it came to putting, there was nobody better.
Over the course of 72 holes, Li ranked 13th in distance of the tee at an average of 303.9 yards, and an astonishing 47th when it came to greens in regulation, with just 65%.
Compare this to McIlroy, whose impressive long game saw him ranked first off the tee with an average of more than 321 yards. This was followed up with a not-so-impressive 27th for greens in regulation (70.8%), but the advantage certainly lay with the Northern Irishman.
But it was on the short grass that Li took over taking an average of just 1.49 putts per green, and needing just 23.8 putts per round over the four day – both figures ranking him first in the field.
McIlroy on the other hand, required 1.7 putts per hole (rank 40), and 27 putt per round (rank 27)
Driving for show, putting for dough indeed.
Add to this the fact Li never once dropped a shot when he found the sand, a 100 per cent save-rate, compared to 60 per cent from McIlroy and we can see that it was the Chinese star’s short game that took him to the title in Dubai.