Rayhan Thomas: Beyond the birdie blitz
Rayhan Thomas, born on 14 November 1999, was still a babe in arms when Tiger Woods enjoyed the sort of season that golf might never see again. Having finished fifth at the US Masters in Augusta in April 2000, he won the US Open by 15 strokes, and the British Open by eight, before clinching the PGA championship in a three-hole play-off. Thomas never watched Woods at his peak. By the time he got into the sport, the winner of 14 majors was on a downward spiral that culminated in a car being driven into a fire hydrant and a carefully constructed reputation destroyed.
What Thomas does remember is a meal at a steakhouse with the Northern Irishman who is one of those jostling for the space vacated by Woods. “Rory (McIlroy) was just coming on to the scene when I started playing,” says Thomas, who represented the International team in the inaugural Junior Presidents Cup. “I had lunch with him when I was about 12. This would have been around 2012. That’s a memory I’ll always cherish.”
As unforgettable is the moment when he first picked up a club. “My first golf memory is of a small store on the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai,” he says. “My dad had to go repair some clubs, and they had a few sitting on the side. I started hitting some balls into a net, and just loved the feeling. I would have been around 7 then.”
John Thomas, Rayhan’s father, is chief operating officer with The Chalmers Group in Dubai. A mechanical engineer, who graduated from Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) in 1986, he moved to Dubai in 1993. Neena, his wife, gave up her software job three years ago, when the parents took the decision to home-school Rayhan and give his golf the best chance to flourish. Sasha, his older sister, studies peace and conflict management at the University of California in Berkeley, US.
“I started lessons when I was around 8, in the junior development programme at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club,” says Rayhan. Less than a decade later, on his “home” course, he became the first amateur to win a MENA Tour event. He couldn’t retain the title earlier this month, but in finishing second, he still created golfing history.
“It was awesome, to make nine birdies in a row and equal a world record,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t realize the significance. This game is huge and it’s been around a long time. To put myself in that record book means a lot. It means I’m on the right track to achieving my dreams.”
Those dreams were certainly encouraged by his father, who once played off a handicap of 10. And while he follows football in a casual way, Thomas is very much a golf geek away from the course as well. “I know almost everything that’s going on each week,” he says with a grin, before going on to analyse his own game dispassionately.
“My biggest strength is my ball-striking,” he says. “My driving and iron play are very strong—those have given me all the success I’ve had so far.” When asked to break it down, and grade himself on his prowess off the tee, his approach play, putting and saves, there’s no false modesty. “I give myself a 10 on each at the minute. I’d like to say I don’t have any big weaknesses.”
His progress has certainly been meteoric. The second-place finish at Dubai Creek helped him climb to No.31 in the amateur rankings. The next Indian on the list is Yashas Chandra in 353rd place. But Thomas is not about to be distracted by such numbers. He’s in it for the long haul. Strongly built, he has spent considerable time in the gym over the past couple of years, making sure that fatigue doesn’t take the edge off his game.
“I do a lot of work with a fitness trainer at the Butch Harmon School of Golf,” he says. “That’s helped me a lot. It’s mainly injury prevention, because this is a sport you’ll be playing a long, long time. Over a long career, preventing injuries is essential. I do a lot of core training, a lot of flexibility and mobility.”
What he doesn’t do much of is indulge in the simulation games that allow even your Average Joe to tee off on the Old Course at St Andrews. “I prefer being out in the sunshine or whatever weather we have, bashing balls,” he says. “It’s a little shorter time-wise, which is convenient for people, but I prefer the real thing.”
His travels have taken him to the UK, where he won the Scottish Boys’ Stroke Play Championship title in 2016, and where conditions can be a world apart from Dubai. “A couple of times, I’ve had to deal with rain and high winds,” says Thomas. “Being in Dubai, it’s pretty much sunshine year round. Putting myself in conditions where it’s windy or freezing cold, or where you have to get up and play 36 holes in one day because the first round was cancelled—those are the things I’ll have to deal with when I turn professional.”
He has his eyes set on turning pro, but like many others over the years, he fancies a little detour. “I’m looking at college in the US in 2019,” he says. “During that period, if I see myself doing well, then definitely. That would definitely be the long-term goal.”
His parents apart, his closest confidantes are his coaches at the academy. Butch Harmon worked with Woods between 1993 and 2004, and the set-up that bears his name is Thomas’ home away from home. “My coach is Justin Parsons,” he says. “He takes care of my game all the way from chipping to my full swing, and John Howells helps me with my putting. I trust those two guys the most.”
At home, John and Neena have the same dreams. “My parents see some sort of potential in me,” says Thomas who managed to get a share of the points in a four-ball match as the US thoroughly outplayed the International team on the opening day of the Junior Presidents Cup at Liberty National. “It’s an expensive sport. To see them put in all the time and effort to make sure I get the best facilities is great, and they do a fantastic job.”
To make sure his college ambitions are not foiled, Thomas does his lessons online, and sticks to a disciplined daily routine. “I know I’m missing out on a lot of stuff I’d be getting in regular school—the social aspect, being out with friends, going out every week,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I enjoy winning a lot more than I enjoy going out. So, if this is the sacrifice I need to make to keep winning, that’s what I need to do.”
He has recently taken up yoga to help with the mental side of the game, but most of the preparation is done on his own. “Picking a target, focus and visualization, I do all of that,” he says. “I’ve been listening to a sports psychologist named Bob Rotella, especially on specific things that could help me out. But mainly, it’s about experience. I try to mark down everything I’ve done, week in, week out, and figure out what I can do better the next week.”
A few months short of his 18th birthday, he has also learned to let go. “Just accepting that you can’t be perfect is a start,” he says. “There will be times when I hit a bad shot. Getting angry is not a bad thing. Instead of bottling it up inside, get angry for a short period and then let it go because you have another shot to play…that’s essential.”
The figure of Anthony Kim, the party-hard prodigy who finished third at the Masters in 2010 but hasn’t struck a ball on tour in five years, looms as a cautionary tale for every prodigy taking up the sport, but if it all goes according to plan, Thomas can see himself at Augusta National or on the Old Course before too long. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself and put too much pressure,” he says. “I’ll just try to play the best golf I can, and if that gets me on to the first tee at the Masters, that’s good.”
For now, he’ll just keep bashing those balls.