The Dubai-based teenager once again showed the immense strides he has made in the last few years when he made the cut in his debut Challenge Tour event and posted rounds of 71, 70, 70 and 72 to card a commendable five-under par finish for tied 55th place in the tournament, for which he was handed a sponsor’s exemption by organisers Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA).
Thomas, who left straight for Muscat to take part in the MENA Golf Tour Championship which begins on Sunday, could have finished with four straight sub-par rounds, but a lipped-out par putt from six feet denied him that pleasure.
Thomas was still delighted with his effort, even though he felt he left a few shots out there.
“I’m happy, although five-under par is the worst I could have shot in the tournament. I could have done a lot better than this. But I came into the tournament thinking whatever I did, was going to be a learning experience for me. So, the mistakes I made were as important as all the birdies I made,” said the 16-year-old, now ranked 132nd in the world amateur golf rankings.
“That last one didn’t drop but this performance gives me a lot of confidence for next year and the future. The only way is up. If I keep progressing at this rate then the sky is the limit.
“This experience has been invaluable to me and my first Challenge Tour event is something I’ll cherish forever.”
Thomas’ participation in Muscat is a mere formality as far as MENA Tour amateur Order of Merit is concerned. No other amateur can overtake him, even if they win the tournament.
There must be something in the name Jordan. Englishman Jordan Smith, hoping to follow in the footsteps of former world No1 Jordan Spieth, all but ensured himself a European Tour card by winning the inaugural Ras Al Khaimah 2016 Golf Challenge on Saturday.
At Al Hamra Golf Club, a dramatic late surge on the back nine gave Smith a second European Challenge Tour win of the year and secured him the top spot in the Road to Oman ranking heading into the season finale next week.
The 23-year-old Englishman made four birdies in five holes to take a one-shot lead down the final hole, and a steady par helped him beat José-Filipe Lima to the top prize. Smith shot a final-round 66 for a 20-under par total.
“I’m over the moon to be honest, really happy,” he said. “I missed the last two cuts but I knew my game was there or thereabouts and I actually played really well last Friday in China so I wasn’t far away.
“I just came out this week and relaxed, took my mind of things, and gave it my all, and it all paid off today – the course suited my eye and I really enjoyed it, and of course I’m delighted with the end result.
“It feels very similar to that win in Egypt – Ras Al Khaimah and this course remind me a lot of that week, which is probably a good thing. I sweat just as much as anybody else but the heat seems to suit me.
“I did something similar a year ago, winning late to win the Order of Merit on the EuroPro Tour, and I’m really targeting that top spot in the Road to Oman Rankings now.
Smith has now opened up a gap of more than 32,000 points on top of the Road to Oman rankings over Alexandre Knappe, and will fall to third place in the worst-case scenario. With the top-15 players after the Oman tournament receiving European Tour membership, Smith was obviously delighted with his position.
“I definitely want to win the Rankings but I’m just going to go out there in Oman, not think too much about finishing on top, I’m just going to go out there and play my game,” said Smith.
“To be honest I never expected a year as good as this one so early into my Challenge Tour career. I knew my game was in the right shape to compete and that win early on just boosted my confidence and it’s gone pretty well since!”
Lima’s outstanding weekend rounds of 66 and 65 took the Portuguese into outright second and have lifted him into the top 16 of the Rankings.
Former Dubai resident Johan Edfors closed with a 67 to take third place on 17-under par, with his fellow Swede Marcus Kinhult and Spaniard Pedro Oriol sharing fourth place.
(Final scores, par-72 course)
268 – Jordan Smith (ENG) 69 66 67 66
269 – Jose-Filipe Lima (POR) 71 67 66 65
271 – Johan Edfors (SWE) 68 66 70 67
272 – Pedro Oriol (ESP) 69 66 67 70, Marcus Kinhult (SWE) 68 67 65 72
274 – James Heath (ENG) 70 67 66 71, Paul Maddy (ENG) 68 72 64 70, Max Orrin (ENG) 65 70 67 72, Romain Langasque (FRA) 66 67 70 71, Darien van Driel (NED) 71 70 68 65
275 – Charlie Ford (ENG) 68 68 70 69, Pontus Widegren (SWE) 65 69 69 72, Oscar Stark (SWE) 70 69 69 67, David Law (SCO) 68 69 66 72, Jack Senior (ENG) 72 66 69 68
Sam Snead, they used to say, owned the Greater Greensboro Open. It did not matter whether it was played at Sedgefield Country Club, or at the Starmount Forest Country Club six miles down the road. Such was his dominance that for most newspapers, the story of Slammin’ Sammy winning would be back-page news, but it got upgraded to front page if he did not pick up the trophy.
Snead won the inaugural Greater Greensboro Open in 1938, and 27 years later in 1965, won it for the eighth time aged 52 (still the PGA Tour record for the oldest player to win a title). In between, he finished runner-up three times and had several top-five finishes.
There have been many such instances of golfers falling in love with a golf course. Tiger Woods sets the benchmark – winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone a record eight times and seven times each at Torrey Pines (South) and Doral. In comparison, three of Snead’s wins in Greensboro came at Starmount.
Closer to home, we have the examples of Ernie Els at the Emirates Golf Club, Martin Kaymer at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and Rory McIlroy at the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates. Els won the Dubai Desert Classic three times and never finished outside the topeight in his first 11 starts. Kaymer’s still called the King of Abu Dhabi for finishing 1-1-2-1 in four years starting 2008.
McIlroy has won the DP World Tour Championship twice, but has only once finished outside the top-five in seven years.
In the last couple of weeks, two players have reaffirmed how they can elevate their game playing on certain courses. India’s Anirban Lahiri has been on fire these past two weeks on two courses he loves, making seven birdies in his last seven holes to make it to the playoff in Macao before losing, and then recording his best PGA Tour finish of tied third at TPC Kuala Lumpur.
On that same course, American Justin Thomas won for the CIMB Classic for a second straight year with a now combined total of 49-under par.
When such a thing happens, ‘horses for courses’ is what most people think. The players like to say the course ‘suits their eyes’.
Various factors come into play to create such a comfort zone – some courses suit players who hit a draw (right-to-left shot) rather than a fade, or have a higher ball flight as against low penetrating shots; some players love the Bermuda grass more than Bent grass or Paspalum; some even get influenced by the angle at which the greens are set against sunlight, prevailing wind directions and of course, weather conditions.
One factor which most experts agree helps in mastering a golf course is to have happy memories of the place. Given how golf is such a mental game, good vibes always contribute to a good scorecard.
This love for a golf course can either develop instantly, or take time and effort to be brewed to perfection.
In Lahiri’s case it’s clearly the latter – not just on one golf course, but on three different courses. In the last few years, he has performed exceptionally well at Delhi Golf Club, Macao Golf & Country Club and TPC Kuala Lumpur.
Prior to winning the 2011 Panasonic Open, Lahiri struggled mightily with the bush-lined fairways of Delhi Golf Club and admitted to hating the course. But after he sat with his coach Vijay Divecha and changed his gameplan, he went on to win four titles there.
In Macao, he missed two cuts before going on a 2-1-2-2 streak in the last four years. In KL, he had three MCs and one T52 finish before winning the 2015 Malaysian Open and contending well at the CIMB Classic the last two years.
It’s fascinating to know how Lahiri mastered the three courses.
Known as a cerebral golfer, good planning has played a bigger role than acquiring new skills. At Delhi, it was a comment from Divecha that led to change of plans.
The coach bluntly told Lahiri the only reason he did not do well there was because he did not know how to play the golf course.
It led to a shake-up. Out went his favourite club from the bag – the driver – and in came a new attitude. The rest, as they say, is history.
Divecha believes players with a fixed mindset limit themselves by believing in the ‘horses for courses’ theory. But ‘players’ with growth mindsets apply themselves to adapt to play well in all conditions.
TPC KL is another story. At the inaugural EurAsia Cup, Lahiri beat Victor Dubuisson 2&1 in the singles.
The Frenchman, following his runner-up finish in WGC-Match Play that year, was being hailed as one of the foremost exponents of match play. Dubuisson made five birdies, but Lahiri made seven.
That battle elevated his confidence to another level.
Lahiri is like a mathematician on a golf course. His course management is all based on using clubs and playing to areas that will give him a better probability of making birdies than making bogeys. He uses irons on holes where majority field would use a driver, and resort to the driver where others use irons. By no means is he a conservative golfer, but the moment his calculations tell him that the chances of making a bogey becomes larger than making a birdie on a certain hole, he will change his plan.
That’s one of the reasons I believe Lahiri will soon win multiple times on the PGA Tour. Having the talent and skill helps, but what helps more is the way he unravels the mysteries of a golf course. Now in his second year there, he must be closer to making fool-proof plans for them.
Watch out for him in 2017.