By Kent Gray
Darren Clarke made an unsolicited plea for a cooling of expectations surrounding Rayhan Thomas on the eve of the teen’s Dubai Creek Open title defence Sunday. Good luck with that now.
The rise and rise of the 17-year-old reached giddy new heights on Tuesday when the Indian amateur No.1 tied the world record for successive birdies in a professional event to ignite his defence of the MENA Tour title.
Riding a hot putter and the encouragement of his major championship winning playing partner, the Indian teen rattled off nine straight birdies from the second to emulate 1989 Open champion Mark Calcavecchia and European Tour star Bernd Wiesberger.
After an outward nine of just 27 strokes and another birdie on the 10th, local social media was abuzz with a “#59 watch”. Thomas would eventually have to settle for a course-record tying 61 but the global reverberations were no less seismic.
Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, Europe’s beaten Ryder Cup captain last year and the MENA Tour’s patron, hasn’t changed his view on Thomas despite Tuesday’s eventual hullabaloo.
Indeed, the Ulsterman quickly rebuked a local reporter for daring to mention “Rory [McIlroy] at this age and Rayhan at this age” in the same breath.
“They’re totally different, you can’t compare them and I think you’ve got to be respectful as well. You can’t be heaping too much pressure on Rayhan,” Clarke said.
“He’s going to play Junior Presidents Cup [in New Jersey later this month], his game is going in the right direction, everything is really good , but we just need to let him get on with things.”
But as unfair as the McIlroy comparsion was, the fact Thomas’ name was even uttered in the same sentence gives a sense of the interest in the online-schooled teen.
This time last year he was the 1050th ranked amateur in the world but now, after becoming the first amateur to win on the MENA Tour, making his first European Tour cut at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and a run to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur, Thomas is 50th and suddenly the talk of the developmental tour. If he hasn’t quite put the MENA Tour on the global map, he’s certainly given the world’s golf media a jolly good reason to at least Google his and the Pro-Am circuit’s name as these tweets suggest:
Rayhan Thomas is 17, an amateur and today posted nine straight birdies in the Dubai Creek Open, a professional event. Ties a world record.
— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelESPN) September 12, 2017
— Claude Harmon III (@CH3golf) September 12, 2017
Of course, Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion, knows about the Dubai Creek product who has qualified No.1 for his International team ahead of the inaugural Junior Presidents Cup.
Yeah baby! Great playing!
Enjoy and see you soon @RayhanThomas….⛳️
— Trevor Immelman (@TrevorImmelman) September 12, 2017
Even Clarke relented a little.
“He didn’t quite play so well yesterday [Monday] but today he played fantastic. The score he shot is probably the worst he could have shot and you can’t say that too often.
“He’s very clam and collected and knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
Perhaps the most impressive of all Thomas’ quotes afterwards was when he admitted golf’s once mythical 59 mark entered his thinking.
“When I birdied 10, it was my 9th birdie, it crept into my head that I could of made, possibly 59, but I just tried to make sure I remembered I have a tournament to play,” he said. “You know, 59 is not the goal, trying to get myself into contention is, so I didn’t want to do anything silly, stick to my game plan.”
The game plan Wednesday will be to emulate Englishman Zane Scotland as a back-to-back winner of the Dubai Creek Open.
Thomas will start two shots adrift of MG Keyser after the Dubai-based South African backed up his part of the now joint Creek course record on Monday with a 68 to move to -14 for the championship.
At -9, Englishman Robert Harrhy is certainly not out of it. But, despite Clarke’s sage plea, the only story in town will inevitably focus on a kid who started playing golf at the club just eight years ago, and began this week having a rock named after him
Clarke has been around long enough to know his plea has now fallen between an altogether different rock and a hard place. But without wanting to heap too much added pressure on the level-headed lad, we sense the Rayhan headlines will continue to flow.