Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Rayhan Thomas: From Dubai to Oklahoma State, UAE's best amateur ready for next challenge in golf career

Swapping the comforts of home for the most competitive program in collegiate golf will take some adjustment, but Thomas is prepared, he tells John McAuley

Rayhan Thomas follows in the footsteps of accomplished Oklahoma State alumni including Rickie Fowler, Maathew Wolf and Viktor Hovland. Victor Besa / The National
Rayhan Thomas follows in the footsteps of accomplished Oklahoma State alumni including Rickie Fowler, Maathew Wolf and Viktor Hovland. Victor Besa / The National

As welcomes go, it was far from ideal.

“Soon as I landed, the first message I got was an alert you get on the iPhone: ‘There’s a hurricane close by, get into shelter’,” says Rayhan Thomas, in reference to where the Dubai-born teenager now calls home. “I was thinking ‘Oh God’, but my coach was pretty chilled about it. He must be used to it.”

Thomas must come to terms with it rather quickly, too. The brightest light to come out of UAE golf, he has traded the Emirates for Tornedo Alley in the United States, where last week he began a golf scholarship at the celebrated Oklahoma State University (OSU).

Alumni include Rickie Fowler, five-time winner on the PGA Tour and current world No 18. Last month, Matthew Wolff won on the game’s lead circuit in only his third pro start. Many expect Viktor Hovland, OSU teammate and formerly the best amateur in the world, to soon follow suit.

Together, they spearheaded one of the best two-year runs in men's collegiate golf history, when OSU became the first to capture back-to-back national NCAA Championship titles.

Little wonder, then, that Thomas chose them from his many suitors when Cowboys coach Alan Bratton first came calling two years ago.

“It was about time I leave Dubai and start my golf journey somewhere else," the Indian amateur says. “I’ve always wanted to play consistently in the US because they have the highest level of competition - they have the best opportunities.

“And I don’t think there’s anywhere better for me to go and study than Oklahoma State. Matt and Viktor, and many others, are validations of that.”

Settling into new surroundings, Thomas wants to affirm a long-held regional talent on the grander stage. His UAE record remains remarkable: a win at the 2016 Dubai Creek Open, becoming the first amateur to triumph on the Mena Tour. A made cut at the 2017 Omega Dubai Desert Classic, eventually finishing tied-60th. Nine consecutive birdies during his Dubai Creek Open title defence to equal a world record.

He has played practice rounds with Rory McIlroy and picked the brains of Brooks Koepka, each four-time major winners. Koepka is golf's current world No 1.

Previously ranked 11th in the amateur game, Thomas has eyes on turning pro, be it after his four years at OSU elapse, or before. Right now, he is focused primarily on what constitutes a major move in anyone’s life. And, while that hurricane never landed when he conducted a recce of OSU in June, Thomas is intent on whipping up a storm of his own.

“The ultimate goal is just to get as good as I can get,” he says. “It’s just a consistency I still need to acquire, and that comes with experience. There’s an understanding that comes with experience; just pick up more things as you go on.

“College golf is a tough environment – first of all making the team is tough – and you compete against the best amateurs in the world. So to put myself in a competitive environment week-in, week-out will be so, so good for me.”

Luckily, Thomas has some expert support to lean on. There’s Justin Parsons, his coach from the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Dubai who has relocated to America. Now the Elite Instructor at Sea Island Golf Performance Centre in Georgia, and with a number of pros in his stable including major champion Louis Oosthuizen, a familiar face is about three-hours away by flight. Parsons has not been providing only professional tips, but personal advice about the big move.

“He’s always there for me,” Thomas says. “He’s just the best guy I have.”

Claude Harmon III must rank a close second. Swing coach to, among others, Koepka and world No 2 Dustin Johnson, Harmon III helped Thomas decide on OSU. He is always at the end of a phone as well.

“That’s what Dubai does to you,” Thomas says. “It keeps you connected to so many great people. Dubai’s so diverse you meet so many good people that you can lean on if you need help.”

You get the suspicion Thomas will be alright forging his own path. OSU sits in Stillwater, about an hour from Oklahoma City, where the easy vibe matches perfectly his personality.

“I’m not a big going-out guy," he says. "I’m more of a stay-at-home, ‘lay back in the hammock under the shade of a tree’ kinda guy, so that’s what this place kind of is.

“It’s definitely somewhere I could spend four years. And luckily being part of a team it makes making friends very easy. Obviously football games, basketball games, wrestling is very big there, parties and going out, lots of places to eat, school. You keep yourself pretty busy.

“The food’s going to be pretty good. Oklahoma is cow country so a lot of good steak, and I love my steak. The food’s probably what I’m looking forward to the most.”

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Rayhan Thomas with Rory McIlroy during a practice round at the 2018 Omega Dubai Desert Classic

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That said, there’s plenty he has left behind. His parents, understandably. Mum would typically sort his travel and will have a tough time sleeping knowing her son’s journeying around the US. Although, flying private should ease concerns.

“That’ll be pretty sweet,” Thomas says. “Good to experience that too.”

Yet Dubai will be hard to shake. From the big shelf as soon as you enter the family home that houses all his trophies and trinkets - despite it there to please his parents more than Thomas - to his bed. From contesting the Dubai Golf Trophy to competing on the Mena Tour.

“I love the Mena Tour,” Thomas says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Mena Tour.

“Obviously I’ve grown up in Dubai, 19 years,” Thomas says. “I love the place. But there comes a point where I need to grow up and leave the nest. Luckily today you’re able to connect pretty easily.

“I’m very sentimental towards my house in Dubai, my room especially. Because I always viewed, regardless of where I travelled, my bed was always going to be there. My room’s a bit of a sanctuary - I know if I go there, I’m safe, I’m away from everything. It’s the one place that I’ll miss the most.

“And I’ve depended on my parents so much it’s going to be tricky. I’ll have to figure things out myself. But it’s just that independence. It’s a good thing for me.”

Rayhan Thomas played alongside former US Masters champion Danny Willett at the 2017 Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Getty Images
Rayhan Thomas played alongside former US Masters champion Danny Willett at the 2017 Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Getty Images

That begins with domestic chores. Thomas first viewed his new digs in June, taking in the large kitchen and single room that used to accommodate Viktor. Washing machine and dryer were included.

“It was fantastic, I thought it looked a bit like a resort actually,” Thomas says, laughing. “There are a few perks you get being an athlete. At the same time I have no idea how to wash my own clothes, but it’s stuff I’ll pick up along the way. I’ll figure it out pretty quick.”

Ditto how to balance golf with his studies. Thomas has opted for a general business course before he nails down his major, choosing classes that allow him finish around midday then use the rest of the day to practise.

As Wolff and Hovland can testify, he’s in good hands.

“Clearly coach Bratton knows how to scout,” Thomas says. “He’s definitely got great players and he knows how to shape them into even better. He’ll give you freedom, but at the same time be on your back, making sure you’re doing your work.”

As for the pressure to perform for a preeminent institution, Thomas has proven already his mettle across a number of tests, both in the UAE and further afield. He’s adamant he’ll take that, the next stage in his life and career, and even those hurricane warnings, all in his stride.

“There’s always going to be pressure, especially when you go to a school like Oklahoma State that demands so much because of how good they are,” he says. “They expect a lot from their team.

“But you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do and whichever way the chips fall you’ve got to deal with it. I feel I’m ready for that next step. I can’t wait. I’m just so excited to get started.”

Updated: August 29, 2019 11:48 AM

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