Richard Bevan talks exclusively to the UAE’s No.1 amateur Rayhan Thomas about what has been a huge summer in the 17 year old’s development which has seen him prove his ability against the very best players of his age on the world stage.

To say that Rayhan Thomas has had an eventful summer would be something of an understatement.  As a follow-up to last year’s heroics, when the 17-year-old, who is Dubai’s great golfing hope, became the first amateur to win a MENA Tour event at the Dubai Creek Open, the talented young prodigy has raised the bar yet further, with a string of new milestones reached and breached.

Invited to play in such prestigious global events like the Junior Invitational and the British Amateur, he then made the field for the biggest junior event in the world, the US Junior Amateur – a tournament won previously by the likes of Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth – where he became the first Indian player to reach the semi-final stage. But biggest of all, Thomas finished as the highest ranked International player in the inaugural Junior Presidents Cup Rankings – giving him top billing on 2008 Masters Champion Trevor Immelman’s team for the newly instated biennial contest against the USA, this year led by David Toms, when the event gets underway at Plainfield Country Club New Jersey on September 25-26.

One of Thomas’ greatest attributes, outside of his unerring talent, is his maturity and ability to keep his feet on the ground despite the accolades and global media attention increasing in direct correlation with his ever-increasing upward trajectory in the game. But he’s now risen to 51st in the World Amateur Golf Rankings – and he’s still a junior – and even he must be starting to get excited about what the future holds.

“In the future, you never know, anything could happen,” says Thomas who teed it up alongside Rickie Fowler in a practice round ahead of this year’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and played with 2016 Masters Champion Danny Willett in the final round of the OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic. “I just keep doing my best and if I continue like this, in an upward graph, hopefully I’ll be able to get onto the Tour and become one of the best players in the world.

“Finishing No.1 on the Presidents Cup Rankings is huge for me. To be the No.1 seed for the International side, means a lot. To know that all the years of hard work have paid off and allowed me to become one of the best juniors in the world gives me a lot of confidence and will hopefully translate into a lot of good play for the rest of this year and into next year.”

When Thomas gets his first taste of a world-class team event alongside the best players in his age group outside of Europe, not only will he gain invaluable insight from his Major-winning team captain, he will also enjoy the inspiring experience of having two of the game’s most revered players to draw from as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are acting as Honorary Captains for the respective teams.

“To rub shoulders with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will be awesome,” he says. “They are two of the greatest players ever to play the game. To pick the brains of two multiple Major championship winners will be invaluable. It will be brilliant to learn how they worked around their swing on the golf course, coped with the mental side of the game – on and off the golf course – dealt with media, etc. These are things that hopefully one day I will have to deal with and to be able to talk to two guys who achieved so much as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will mean a lot.”

The Junior Presidents Cup will be another opportunity for Thomas to show what he can do on the world stage. For followers of golf in the UAE, the potential of the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club member, who is coached at the Butch Harmon School of Golf, has long been known. From graduating the Emirates Golf Federation’s Junior Development Programme, then dominating the EGF’s Order of Merit to become the region’s No.1 amateur, to spreading his wings internationally, winning the prestigious Scottish Boys and last year’s monumental achievement of winning on the MENA Tour and topping the amateur Order of Merit.

But 2017 has been the year that Thomas has proven he can truly mix it with the best of his peers around the world. Only the best players in the world are invited to play in the Junior Invitational. In April this year Thomas was one of them and from a top-class field of 54 at Sage Valley Golf Club in Georgia, a mere 9-iron from the famous Augusta National and bearing many similarities, he finished tied 13th.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – JANUARY 17: Rayhan Thomas (a) of India pictured with Rickie Fowler of the United States during a practice round ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on January 17, 2017 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

WORLD-BEATING POTENTIAL

“The Junior Invitational is a fantastic event, it was probably the best hospitality I’ve ever experienced,” says Thomas. “The welcome they give you and the way they treat you is very prestigious and makes you want to go back every year. I’d recommend any junior to put in a lot of hard work to try to get into that event. I played well and shot 4-under on the last day which was great. I obviously wish I’d done even better but at the end of the day, tied 13th in such a high-ranking junior event is good and I learned a lot from it.”

In July Thomas tested his mettle against the best ‘any age group’ amateurs in the world at the British Amateur and equipped himself admirably, narrowly missing the cut by a stroke after a missed four-footer led to a bogey at the last at Royal St Georges. But it was in the world’s premier junior event – the US Junior Amateur at Flint Hills National Golf Club, Kansas that the Shaikh Maktoum Foundation-backed youngster really served noticed on his world-beating potential. After enjoying a glorious run to the semi-finals – a feat no Indian player has ever achieved – there was no shame in being beaten 5 and 4 by eventual champion, Noah Goodwin.

“The US Junior Amateur was unbelievable,” he says. “The USGA does a fantastic job in the way it runs the tournament and the condition of the course at Flint Hills was incredible. To reach the semi-finals and to finish third in the biggest junior event in the world means a lot and shows that I have what it takes to play at the highest junior level. But at the same time, I would have loved to have made the finals and possibly got a US Amateur spot but it is what it is and I know what have to work on. Noah had the game from the start. He just played much better than I did that day so hats off to him but I can’t wait to get at it again next year.

HUGE MILESTONE

“All the milestones that I’ve reached over the past few years increase my confidence,” he continues. “It works both ways – reaching each milestone gives me confidence but at the same time I wouldn’t reach them if I didn’t have it in me in the first place. But I keep gaining in experience and confidence which will hopefully lead me into a professional career where I can lean back on what I’ve achieved and learn from my amateur and junior days and use that to have a successful professional career. All of this stuff is very important and trying to tick off all of my goals over the next few years is essential for my future and my growth.”

Another huge milestone will be reached when Thomas represents the International Team in the inaugural Junior Presidents Cup later this month and then it’s on to New Zealand for the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship in October and the All India Amateur Championship in Bangalore in December. All this against the backdrop of completing the 11th grade in high school and getting the required S.A.T. scores before he begins talking to colleges in America ahead of the next stage of his golfing adventure begins Stateside.

That’s the scary thing about this outrageously talented product of the Dubai golf system. It’s easy to forget he’s still just a schoolboy. And he may be the epitome of cool, calm and collectedness but make no mistake, this boy is full of quiet confidence in his ability. With a good few years as an amateur still ahead of him before stepping up to the pro ranks, he’s aiming right at the top.

“100% I’ve got my eyes set on the No.1 spot,” he smiles. “Who doesn’t think about trying to become World No.1 – this is what we play for, to try to be the best at what we do. If, over the next three or four years, I can try to get into that No.1 spot and solidify a position there, it would be fantastic for me and my game. Because we all know, if you can be the best amateur, you probably have a chance of being a very good professional as well.

“So, I definitely have my eye on the No.1 spot, in both the amateur and the professional game!”

Everything he’s achieved so far points to him having more than a fighting chance at both.

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