Photo courtesy USGA
By Kent Gray
After a pair of frustrating strokeplay setbacks in Scotland, Rayhan Thomas has worked to get his “head on straight” ahead of the 71st U.S. Junior Amateur starting at historic Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey on Monday.
The 18-year-old, Dubai-based Indian No.1 is one of 25 players exempted into the 156-player field after his breakout run to the semifinals of the under-19 USGA championship at Flint Hills National last July.
He’ll tee it up with Americans Fulton Smith and Luke Ludwig at 9.09am local time (5.09pm UAE time) on Monday on Baltusrol’s Upper course before playing in the penultimate group in Tuesday’s final round of strokeplay on the slightly shorter Lower course Tuesday at 11.57am (7.57pm UAE time).
The top 64 players advance to the matchplay knockout stages and the spotlight will be on Thomas in the second round, and more specifically the back nine on Tuesday, after he let golden opportunities slip in last month’s St. Andrews Links Trophy and The (British) Amateur Championship.
The MENA Tour trailblazer had been T-22 after an opening 72 on the par 70 Royal Aberdeen and comfortably on track to make the top-64 at the 123rd edition of the British Am. But as was the case at the St Andrews Links Trophy at the Home of Golf the previous week, where Thomas went from contending after 27 holes to somehow missing the 36-hole cut, he struggled with another five-over homeward nine.
“I love links golf so I loved playing those two weeks on some of the best links courses the world has to offer but unfortunately, my back nine game on the second days was where I fell short,” Thomas told Golf Digest Middle East.
“I’m looking forward to [Baltusrol] in New Jersey. Going forward, just keep working on the same things I’ve been working on… The game is in good shape, I just need to figure out a better way to start scoring on those back nines and I’m sure I’ll come back swinging.”
Thomas was beaten 5 and 4 by eventual champion Noah Goodwin in last year’s semifinals in a championship that dates back to 1948 and increased the age limited from U-18 to U-19 in 2016.
Tiger Woods won the title three years straight from 1991 while Jordan Spieth, the champion in 2009 and 2011, was denied a hat-trick when fellow American Jim Liu succeeded Woods as the event’s youngest winner in 2010.
“The run to the semifinal last year was awesome. I played decent in the strokeplay and then I really kicked it up a gear in the matchplay, had some really good games, just played solid, putted really well.
“That’s the key in match play, if you are able to putt well you can progress pretty far. Keeping the pressure on as I did last year to the semis was awesome. It was a good stepping stone for me because it was such a big event.
“I’m going to look at the course as much as I can on the internet, watch the 2016 PGA [Championship] for the lower course even though the matchplay is on the upper course, get an idea of how it looks.
“I’m just going to keep working on the same things because I’m playing solid, don’t need to do much else. Just get my head on straight and swing hard.”