x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

From horses to courses, an Emirati's Olympics hopes live on

The multi-talented Saif Thabet has changed his saddle for the iron clubs but the Olympic dream is still there.

Saif Thabet plays a round of golf at the Yas Links Golf Club to qualify for the Nomura Cup last month.
Saif Thabet plays a round of golf at the Yas Links Golf Club to qualify for the Nomura Cup last month.

Golf has given us a Tiger, a Shark and a Bear. Emirati hopeful Saif Thabet could patent the nickname "The Horse" if he ever fancied standing out from the field.

How many golfers do you know who have given up a successful equestrian career to take up golf at a serious level?

This time last year, the 23 year old from Abu Dhabi was one of the best showjumpers from the UAE. He was living and training in Germany with dreams of making the Olympics. But last year, after much soul-searching, the jodhpurs were replaced by plus-fours.

Thabet's decision looks like the right one.

He will form part of the four-man the UAE team who will travel to Fiji in August for the Nomura Cup, one of amateur golf's biggest team competitions.

"It will be a great honour for me," Thabet said. "I believe the course in Fiji is fantastic."

When Thabet lines up on the first tee at Denarau, he will reflect on an unusual journey.

"When I started out playing golf seriously, when much younger, I was also showjumping for the UAE team. I was always in Dubai or Sharjah with my golf and then running off somewhere else to compete in showjumping, sometimes on the same day," Thabet said.

"So my dad, Omar, said to choose one and I decided to go with the horses and put golf on hold. The showjumping became serious for me. I travelled a lot with the UAE team, competed in a lot of international tournaments and had good sponsors.

"The golf was always there. I would still find time to grab my bag and shoot nine holes with my dad. But I didn't practise because I was training five times a week and then every weekend we had a competition.

"I lived in Germany for six months last year where I trained every day."

But then fate stepped in. His horse, a French-breed called Mexico, badly injured a muscle and was put out of action for nine months.

"When that happens, a rider becomes a pedestrian. A horse is always a horse," Thabet said.

"I had to think about what I did next. From living in Europe for six months, it made me realise that for me to take my riding to an Olympic level, I would have to permanently move to Germany, where equestrian sport was born, or the UK, France or Holland.

"So I sat down and thought whether this is what I really wanted to do. I decided if I returned home I could work, go back to my studies and golf was the best thing for me to do."

Chris Vallender, the coach of the UAE team, is delighted Thabet ended his exile from the sport.

"Saif has been incredible since he got back into the team with us," Vallender said.

"For Saif to win a place in the UAE team so soon after getting back into golf is a testament to his talent and determination. His swing was there right from the start and now he only has to work on his short game to get level with the other guys.

"I thought he would take a lot longer to get back to where he was and wanted to be, but it's been a really impressive six months or so. I have been impressed."

Thabet works for Mubadala Development Company in human resources, a subject he also studies at Abu Dhabi Men's College.

His life is busy enough, yet he can find enough time to play golf and since his return to the fold, his improvement had been impressive.

"He has worked tremendously hard on his game to get down to a good single handicap so quickly, and he will get better over the summer when we'll practise a lot more on certain aspects," Vallender said.

Thabet won a place in the national team after carding scores of 87, 82 and 79 in the qualifier at Yas Links last month.

"The swing was there, if a little bit rusty," Thabet said.

"All you can do is swing at a bucket of balls to get it back. I have dedicated more time to golf. After work, I am always on the range. When I first came back, I was shooting 90s, then I got it down to the 80s and now I'm breaking 80. It's been really pleasing to see such an improvement."

Vallender watched every day of qualifying and said: "His scoring at Yas Links in the qualifiers was really consistent and I'm sure he can do really well in Fiji, if like the other three he can play to his potential."

Thabet has golf running in his veins as his mother, Corrine, is Scottish, the home of his chosen sport. But he will represent the country of his birth in Fiji when he joins Khalid Yousuf and the Musharrekh brothers, Abudulla and Ahmed, on the team.

"I grew up with all the guys but lost touch when I left the sport, so to come back and be a new face in the team is good for us all," Thabet said.