08 May 2024

Dubai’s Late-Blooming Diamond – Thomas Stephenson

Winning a Club Championship is hard. Winning a Men’s Open is also hard. But Thomas Stephenson has done both in the same season at Jumeirah Golf Estates. Here, Will Kent caught up with the big-hitting Englishman to find out more about his life playing golf.

You don’t have to look very far on a Dubai driving range to see a teenager playing off a plus-four handicap making the game look easy. The Middle East is a well-known area for these young aspiring pros due to the fantastic practice facilities on offer, but Stephenson’s story is remarkably different.

He’s a 33-year-old expat who’s lived in Dubai for five years and currently plays off a handicap of plus five. The Englishman recently won the Jumeirah Golf Estates Men’s Open which earned him a start in last month’s UAE Challenge on the Challenge Tour. By his own account he’s not a youthful prospect anymore, but the professional dream has recently reemerged it’s head after a fantastic season.

“I’ve been playing golf since I was about 13,” Stephenson said. “I had quite a decent junior career before going off to America on a golf scholarship. I went to University at a place called Belmont Abbey, which is a place just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. I spent four years there playing on the golf team, and I actually ended up living in America for 10 years after that before relocating to the UAE.

The 2024 JGE Men’s Open was WAGR event

“Once I graduated, I kind of started to down play golf, really. I felt out of love with it a little bit. Then, once I moved to the UAE, I did the summer membership at JGE a few years ago and thought about getting back into the game. Then it’s been in the last eight months I dedicated myself a bit more to it to see how good I can get at playing again.

“It’s quite odd at 33, I thought I was kind of past it, if you know what I mean. For me, it’s just continued to grow into this year. At 33, I’m still young. You’ve seen people make their debut on the PGA Tour at 35, 36 so it’s sometimes a question of, why not me?”

It’s a good question and he’s right, time is still on his side. In fact, the oldest golfers to play their rookie seasons on the PGA Tour were Allen Doyle and Jim Rutledge who were both 47. The likes of Padraig Harrington, Bernhard Langer and Phil Mickelson are also modern day examples that great golf is still possible deep into your 50s. But does Stephenson actually want to turn pro?

“People keep asking me the question,” he added. “I wanted to win the Club Championship, I done that, and then after that I was like ‘right, I want to win the Men’s Open now’ and I’ve done that. I think I’ll just take it step by step, really. It’s never really been a thought until now.

“I’ve been putting a lot of work in, in the gym, with my strength and flexibility stuff with Jamie Dreelan, down at the TFA and then my swing work stuff with Tim Backhouse who is also at JGE. It’s just an accumulation of hard work and practice which has helped me to shoot some better scores, and obviously play well. We’ll see about the future.”

His improvement and rise to the top of the local golf scene hasn’t completely been down to technical and physical improvements, too. The mental aspects of playing competitive golf, with great players, has allowed him to excel possible more than he would have been able to anywhere else in the world.

“We have a group at JGE on a Friday afternoon called ‘The 500 Club’ which is very competitive, to the point where there’s no gimmies and everything is holed out,” added Stephenson. “We have Tour pros play in it as well, like Richard Mansell and Paul Waring. It helps to keep that competitive edge going.

“It’s just about surrounding yourself with the right people. When we’re playing on a Friday afternoon, yeah, you’re playing with mates, but we’re playing it as a tournament with players who are very, very good.

Stephenson, pictured third from the left, at the Dubai Golf Trophy

“I was also fortunate enough to play with Richard Mansell, and he’s helped me massively to be fair in terms of learning how to get around a golf course properly. Obviously hitting it well is good, but it’s about thinking your way round a course and doing it the right way. Just helping me to think about what I’m doing more, which is making it a little bit easier.

“I just recently shot 64 on the Fire course in that Friday game I mention, which was nice. I also recently played the Dubai Golf Trophy and I was the highest points scorer for the amateur team with 2.5 from 3. It’s just good to keep those competitive juices going and I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed more than anything.”

In a sport where youth often dominates, Stephenson’s story serves as another reminder that age isn’t a limiting factor. His journey is not only inspiring but also thought-provoking, showcasing how resolve and hard work supported by the right people can really help you achieve your goals.

He’s in the right part of the world if he wants to seriously have a crack at the professional game. Not just due to the standout facilities and superb weather, but also the opportunity to regularly test his game against some really exceptional golfers. I’m sure there’s plenty more things to come from yet, and I will be keeping a close eye. Dubai might just be about to unearth an unexpected late-bloomer destined for great things.

 

 

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