In the fast paced country of the United Arab Emirates, most things are done at 100mph. There is one person in the golf industry in Abu Dhabi who is jumping on that trend, and is not slowing down.

Golf Digest Middle East managed to pin down Thomas Gracey from Abu Dhabi Golf Club, to find out how it was that golf got him from Belfast to Abu Dhabi, and how he has become the youngest Senior PGA Instructor in the Middle East, at just the tender age of 24.

Golf is going places with Gracey.

Firstly Thomas, how did you get into golf back home in Northern Ireland? It’s obviously a huge sport back there?

It was my grandfather that got me into golf. My parents had me when they were quite young, so my grandparents took me on the weekends to give them a little break. Every weekend, my Granda and I would do something on Saturday, whether it was fishing, biking, football, literally anything you could think of, and of course, golf!

I have very fond memories of practicing putting up and down the hall with my Granda when I was very young. He used to cut out different size circles; the smaller the circle, the more money it was worth if I could putt a ball and get it to land on it. Of course, it was only 50p or £1 at most, but that seemed like a lot when you were a kid!

When you’re that young, at three-years-of-age, you just do everything. But the older I got, the more and more I asked to play golf with my Granda. We became best friends, and through him, I fell in love with the game of golf. It turned out I was actually quite good at it, and it just snowballed from there really.

Eventually, my Granda got me junior membership at his golf club, Dunmurry Golf Club. The club had a very well-renowned junior section that produced some amazing amateur golfers that won some of the biggest amateur events in the country! Once I got into that environment, I thrived.

Our junior Fred Daly team at the time had seven players with handicaps that ranged from +3 to 1, and I loved it. Even looking back now, competing with and against juniors my age all over the country was amazing. We had the best times travelling, and we honestly treated it like our lives depended on it—it was our Ryder Cup! I spent every second of my free time practicing and playing I just wanted to get better and Dunmurry Golf Club literally became my home.

With your own golfing career, did you want to just work in golf in some shape?

At the start of my career as a young junior within the club, yes, I wanted to play golf for a living on tour. I think that every young golfer who is somewhat good at the game has that dream. But the older I got, the more I realized that even though I was pretty good, there were a lot more people out there that were VERY GOOD!

I did go through a phase within school during my A-levels when I won a few awards for Engineering, so through that, I started to see myself becoming an engineer or an architect. I was always very interested in building things growing up, but I went to do work experience with an interior architect company that did work for some big celebrities in London. But I sat in the office, everyone had headphones in, looking at a screen all day, and I just kept thinking to myself, “This is not for me.” I wanted to be outside with a golf club, so I decided to join the PGA and become a Golf Coach.

It was an easy choice in the end, as I have always been obsessed with the golf swing and why the ball moved the way it did and how we could get our bodies to move a certain way to produce a certain shot. I got very lucky as I entered the PGA with only a week left before the deadline to have a job in the golf industry, but my grandfather was friendly with a golf professional called Andrew Manson at Edenmore Golf Club, who happened to be looking for a new assistant. The rest is history.

We were the number one Mizuno performance centre and ranked top in sales in a lot of accounts from different brands! Andy was and still is a huge influence in my career. I learned so much from him; we became like best friends.

Work never felt like work with Andy. He never asked me to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, and we just got stuff done, whether it was a 15-hour shift on Captain’s Day or hauling in stock. The attitude was “let’s get it done” instead of complaining about it. I definitely bring these attitudes to my work now, and I don’t think I would be where I am today without Andy and the things he taught me.

Not only did he teach me a lot work ethic wise, but every night after work, Andy and I would hit balls in the Trackman Simulator. We would play holes and talk about the golf swing. Andy always had time for me in this way and was just as committed to helping people understand the golf swing and finding out as much as possible as I was.

Fitting clubs also became a huge passion of mine while working at Edenmore, so in my early golf career, I was heavily focused on gaining as many certifications in custom fitting as possible. But I think knowledge in golf, no matter what aspect, can be beneficial when it comes to coaching in some shape or form.

How did you come to leave Northern Ireland and end up in the UAE at Abu Dhabi Golf Club?

I have been here now three years, but I always say it’s like dog years out here!

It’s a funny story. It was my colleague Amy Condon that made me want to come out here! We were playing the Assistant Championships at Nuremore Golf Club, the hilliest golf course I’ve ever played! We played 36 holes a day for two days in lashing rain. It was horrendous, absolute torture! We were having food after the last day in the clubhouse, soaking wet, feeling miserable for ourselves, and Amy told me she got a job offer in Dubai.

Now initially, I was super happy for her, but at the same time, I don’t think my ego could hack it, haha! I thought, if Amy can do it, why not me?!

A day later, I got in touch with Jamie McConnell who at the time was at the Claude Harmon III at The Els Club Dubai, who then put me in contact with Kieren Pratt. Kieren was just made Director of Instruction at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and was trying to build a brand-new team. I had my interview and started within three weeks! It all worked out so perfectly timing-wise.

To be honest, it didn’t really click with me what club I was going to until I googled Abu Dhabi Golf Club and saw the massive Falcon as a clubhouse. I was a little in shock, as the club is very famous for hosting the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the DP World Tour. I had to double-check with Kieren that it was really the same club!

Fast forward to now, I am a completely different golf coach since being here than I was back home. The Middle East is different, and it can easily eat you up and spit you back out and send you home again very quickly. But I love it here and everything about it. I love my life here in Abu Dhabi. It’s a little more homely and slower pace than in Dubai.

The style of coaching at home I would say is slightly different than in Abu Dhabi. We do a lot of group coaching, and that’s something I was thrown into when I got here, considering at the time it was just Kieren, Nick Cork (Senior Teaching Professional), and myself. But luckily, I had two amazing golf coaches with very successful careers in the Middle East to learn from. Both Nick and Kieren learned from Danny Jakubowski, who’s track record in Abu Dhabi Speaks for itself. A lot of his standards in terms of how a golf lesson should be taken are still enforced today, and I think for that to be trickled down to me was very instrumental in my career growth.

It was a lot at the start, but Kieren took me under his wing and taught me a lot when it comes to standards within the golf club and what he would call the storytelling within a lesson—how the lesson should flow from start to finish. I was like a sponge, soaking up all the information I was getting in the first few months! Working with two amazing professionals at the start made me want to learn more and more, so I started to take more and more extra certifications to learn as much as I could.

I think also the fact that my focus is solely on golf coaching instead of having to be split between club fitting, the shop, and coaching helped a lot. I just wanted to give the best lesson possible. I kind of became Kieren’s right-hand man in a sense, and as a result, I was exposed to a lot very quickly. I think he saw a bit of himself in me to be honest.

I quickly became the highest revenue generator within the academy, an achievement I’m proud to say I have maintained for the past 3 years, consistently growing the revenue I have been able to bring in for the club each year.

You have to be so flexible in the UAE in terms of your coaching. We meet people from all over the world so you have to adapt to a variety of skill levels but not only that the langue barrier. So my coaching style definitely had to adapt to all of this and as a result has made me a far better and more rounded golf coach.

Would you say you have a passion in growing the junior side of the game? How has that developed at Abu Dhabi Golf Club?

Yes, absolutely. My love of junior coaching started before I joined the PGA, actually. I got my Level One in coaching very early and volunteered in a lot of schools and at my home club to help with junior development. I think it comes from the experiences I had with my grandfather, my coaches, the junior section and the environment within Dunmurry Golf Club growing up. Remembering how much joy golf brought me, I wanted to give that to as many juniors as possible.

The junior development at Abu Dhabi Golf Club is something I am very proud of being a part of. We have had great success over the past three years I have been here. I took over the Junior Program when I first arrived here and helped grow the juniors.

The hard work paid off as well as I was asked to run the National Junior Program at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, so I got the chance to write the programs and run the classes. And we successfully ran up to 14 classes a week for the local Emirati community!

When we were able to hire my long-time friend Amy Condon, I quickly passed on the junior program to her, but I still play a role in the running of the program in the background. With Amy and I running the juniors together, we developed a new curriculum and program with progression levels for juniors from complete beginners to others that compete in US Kids Golf Tournaments.

The new program, which was heavily based on challenges and games for enjoyment, was immensely popular. The introduction of scorecards for the juniors to track their progress added to the kids wanting to come more and more! We currently have over 80 juniors that attend class on a weekly basis with ages ranging from as young as four years old all the way to 16/17 years old.

You specialise a lot in men’s group classes as well. Was that your decision to develop and how is that progressing at the club?

Yes, recently I have put a lot of my focus on the Men’s Program. It was something I always wanted to run and develop after watching Kieren and Nick in that environment in the early days. The more advanced coaching in that environment was definitely something that intrigued me and matched my vision more of how I saw myself as a golf coach.

I wouldn’t say it was my decision directly. As mentioned before, I quickly became Kieren’s right-hand man, so I was brought in on a lot of men’s group lessons to help when the numbers in a class got big.

Over time, I chipped in more and more, and eventually, I started running my own classes, and they saw a lot of success. I think both Kieren and I saw how we ran the classes the same way: they should be very informative, and the information side had to be world-class, but there also needed to be a sense of fun and enjoyment.

Kieren eventually got a promotion to Director of Golf, and therefore it naturally fell to me to run the Men’s Program. Since I have been in charge of the program, it has seen a participation growth of 300%! I like to think my dedication to the program has a lot to do with that. I am constantly coming up with new promotions to entice more and more men to participate.

We have created a sense of community within the program; it’s a place where you can meet new people and learn golf. I love seeing all the men start to socialize, whether that be nights out, a few drinks after class, or organizing to play golf together.

Along with this, I was able to partner with a company called Bryson. Bryson has allowed us to offer so much more with the men’s development groups and, in fact, the groups in general. The participants now get so much more for their money in terms of content such as recap videos, practice plans, round statistics, and much, much more—but we can’t give away too many of our secret! Bryson has helped us see a revenue increase of 47% this season. Bryson, along with successful partnerships with other companies in the area that offer our members discounts, has definitely helped to achieve the extraordinary growth in numbers!

At just 24, you are the youngest Senior PGA Instructor in the whole of the UAE, you must have a huge sense of pride with that?

This is one achievement I am extremely proud of—not only becoming a Senior Instructor but also being the youngest Senior Instructor in the Middle East at 24, which just added to it tenfold. I think the sense of achievement and pride comes from knowing all the long days and hard work have paid off! Because as cliché as it sounds, it simply comes down to hard work.

As my career progressed from season to season, I found myself taking on more and more responsibilities within the golf academy. I think I was able to demonstrate an ability to handle increased responsibilities without compromising the quality of my work. That, along with my work ethic and motivation for self-development, especially when it comes to knowledge. I’d say my understanding of the running of the golf academy helped a lot also when it comes to planning and implementation within the team. By being able to see the bigger picture outside of just my own lesson diary and doing everything I could to bring business for the academy to the club all helped me in becoming a Senior Instructor. And of course, Kieren having a lot of faith and confidence in me, for which I am extremely grateful.

What are the main goals for you developing golf participation in Abu Dhabi? Would it be maybe making it more accessible? Informative? Social?

Everything! I think my goals and vision for golf here span massively, if I am honest. I don’t see why not. I mean, we have some of the best facilities in the world in terms of range size, Trackman range, and a Championship golf course! My goal is to create an environment for everyone within golf.

I want to provide options for everyone, whether that be on one end of the scale in the form of a group lesson with friends or an individual lesson where they want to learn but also have a chat and a bit of a laugh. Or even a place where they can come down, use the Trackman range, play some games with friends or kids catching monsters on Magic Pond, all while having some food and drinks. Maybe it’s something in between where they just want to come practice their golf a bit after work, take a few lessons, and go play a few holes. At the other end, for some players that are really focused on their game I want the club to also offer some of the best coaching in the world with a pristine grass range, chipping green, and putting green, all with the most advanced technology we can offer!

In saying that, we are very committed to accessibility, and that starts with us going into schools. We are quite lucky to have partnerships with multiple schools in the area where we offer after-school golf and even participate in the school’s sports days, which I think is an amazing way to introduce golf.

When the kids want to come to golf, the parents will follow. It’s all just a big cause-and-effect situation.

Images: Supplied