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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

'It was special': Rayhan Thomas plays nine holes with Rory McIlroy ahead of Omega Dubai Desert Classic

'He’s a really nice kid. He’s got the right attitude to do well, that’s the most important thing,' four-time major champion says of Dubai-based amateur

As far as practice partners go, this one was rather special.

For Rayhan Thomas, no doubt playing the Omega Dubai Desert Classic would represent a decent enough week already, since it provides the chance to rub shoulders with the great and the good of the European Tour.

The Dubai-based amateur is only a few months past his 18 birthday, but competes this week at Emirates Golf Club on a sponsor's invite. A belated gift arrived on Tuesday, in a way, when he received another invitation he gratefully accepted. Chiefly, a back-nine recce of the Majlis Course alongside Rory McIlroy.

“It was special,” Thomas said of his morning practice with the four-time major champion. “He’s a good guy and I’ve looked up to him for a long time, so to play nine holes with him was awesome.

“I had lunch with him eight years ago when I was lucky enough to be one of the local juniors chosen to meet him. So it’s always pretty special to meet up again.”

McIlroy seemed similarly enthused.

“He’s come along so well,” he said. “I’ve known him since he was 13 or 14 and everyone was talking about him then. To see how he’s progressed: he’s a great player, does all the right things, practices hard and has a good attitude towards it.”

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Informed that Thomas was probably four or five years younger than McIlroy thought when they first met, the two-time Classic champion replied: “Is it that long ago now? Jeez, that’s unbelievable. He looked like a 14 year old when he was nine, that’s probably why.

“Obviously I practiced a lot up at the Els Club at the Butch Harmon [School of Golf]. And he’s worked with [instructor] Justin [Parsons] a long time now. I remember everyone talking about this little Indian kid who’s got a really bright future.”

Thomas’ immediate future is a fifth European Tour event this week. Twelve months ago, he made the cut in Dubai, when he shared a final round with Masters champion Danny Willett before eventually finishing tied-60th.

With McIlroy the mentor, for a brief spell on Tuesday at least, his return to the tournament is off to a cracking start.

“He gave me a little bit of advice on course management and equipment, and small things to watch out for while standing over the ball,” Thomas said. “But just watching him play and watching that ball fly was an education in itself.”

However, even as a former world No 1 and widely recognised as golf’s great talent, McIlroy was conscious of overplaying the teaching role.

“I try never to impose or offer any advice because some guys don’t like that,” he said. “When I was an amateur playing out here with Darren Clarke or whoever, I just wanted to enjoy the experience. So I tried to stay out of his way and if he wants to ask my anything I'm more than happy to help. I always have time for him.

“He’s a really nice kid. He’s got the right attitude to do well, that’s the most important thing. You see loads of kids with a lot of talent and they can do a lot, but if they don’t have the right attitude and the right work ethic it can only take you so far.

“But I feel like he’s got his head screwed on and he’s obviously brought up the right way. That’ll really serve him well as he hopefully progresses in the game and goes from strength-to-strength.”

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The age-gap is 10 years, but McIlroy can still relate.

“Whether it’s here with Rayhan or other tournaments, I always try and play practice rounds with some of the guys coming up because I don’t feel it was that long ago that some of the guys were doing it with me.

"I feel like it helped me a lot. It’s very easy for me to say to Rayhan, ‘Come and let’s play nine holes’. His game looks in really good shape. He obviously knows this place really well. As long as he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself, goes out and plays his game, he should be fine.”