On Tuesday morning, as the Indian Golf Union announced the four-member men’s golf team for August’s Asian Games, 18-year-old Rayhan Thomas got a call from his father John. The Dubai resident, currently the highest-ranked Indian at17th on the World Amateur Rankings, was preparing for next week’s SAT Exam. Tuesday’s call-up means he will have to fit in preparing for the quadrennial event in Indonesia, with the academics and amateur golf tournaments. But Rayhan, aiming to win India a fourth Individual medal in the discipline, has no qualms.
“I am very excited about this opportunity. As an amateur golfer, it is my dream to represent India at the international level, and competing in Asian Games and wearing the Indian blazer means a lot. I played in Asia Pacific Amateur Championship and Nomura Cup for India earlier but when I tee off in the Asian Games, it will be different feeling for me and the whole family,” said Rayhan, who will be studying at the Oklahoma State University from 2019 till 2023. “I know I will not turn professional before that. So winning a medal in Indonesia will be more than winning a professional tour title.”
Father John, a mechanical engineer from Kochi, shifted to Dubai in 1993 and it was during a visit to a golf shop to get some clubs repaired that a young Rayhan was introduced to the sport. John, who had a handicap of 10 and worked as Chief Operating Officer with Chalmers Group in Dubai, got Rayhan enrolled at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club in 2008. Rayhan played in junior tournaments in India in 2011-2012 and became the first amateur to win on UAE’s Mena Tour when he won the Dubai Creek Open in 2016, a feat which led to the club naming a rock near a water hazard after him.
The following year, Rayhan equalled the world record of nine consecutive birdies — held by American Mark Calcavecchia — to finish second in the same tournament. Last year, the youngster also became the only Indian golfer to reach the semi-finals and finished third in the US Juniors Amateur Championships, a tournament which boasts of past winners like Tiger Woods and Jordan Speith.
Apart from playing in seven European tour events, including last year’s Dubai Desert Classic where he became the first UAE amateur to make the cut and was tied fifth after first round, Rayhan was also part of the Trevor Immelman’s international team which lost 10-14 to USA.
“I would often accompany my father to the Dubai Creek club. And when I played in the Mena tour, it helped me to play and adjust to heat and windy conditions. Last year’s junior Presidents Cup also gave me an opportunity to see the senior Presidents Cup and I met Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson,” says Thomas.
“In my free time, I used to watch Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Speith’s videos on the internet. When I met them, I saw their game closely and they also discussed with me my plans to study in a college in USA, which they consider important.
“When I made the world record last year, a lot of Indian golfers like Jeev Milkha Singh and sports minister Rajyawardhan Rathore sent me messages. Earlier this year, I also played nine holes with Rory Mcllroy in the Dubai Desert Classic and also met Shubhankar Sharma. The Indian tour is one of the competitive tours in the world and talking with Shubhankar was a big boost for me.”
Tuesday’s announcement meant that the elder Sister Sasha and mother Neena — who left her job three years ago to home school Rayhan — are already preparing to see the youngster don the Indian colours at the Asian Games opening ceremony.
“Our relatives in Bengaluru and Kochi saw Commonwealth Games and when they got to know about Rayhan playing in Asian Games, they have not stopped calling.
“When Rayhan started, luckily I could afford his expenditure. Initially, he was part of junior development programme, but when he decided to train at the (former Tiger Woods’ coach) Butch Harmon School of Golf under Butch’s son Claude Harmon, it meant an expenditure of about 5,000-6000 dirhams (`90,000-1.1lakh) per month,” recalls John. “To see him at the Asian Games Opening ceremony will be the biggest reward for us.”