When Tiger Woods last played in Dubai, Rayhan Thomas was only just a teen and among the galleries tip-toeing for a peak of golf’s greatest power during the 25th anniversary edition of the Desert Classic.
“I was about 200 yards away because I couldn’t get close to him. Yeah… just too many people watching.”
Fast-forward three years and the Dubai-adopted Indian amateur finds himself with a much crisper view from inside the ropes alongside the 14-time major champion and two-time Omega Dubai Desert Classic winner here at Emirates Golf Club.
“It’s a bit different,” said the 17-year-old in his pre-tournament press conference alongside Australian Curtis Luck, the world’s No.2 ranked amateur. No kidding.
“For sure, he’s a huge role model for me,” Thomas said of Woods. “I’ve probably watched every major of his on YouTube. I look at him as one of the greatest athletes of all time.”
While this is Woods’ eighth appearance in Dubai, it will be Thomas’ bow in a tournament and on a course, the majestic Majlis, that has helped shape his amateur ambition.
“I’ve been wanting to play this event for a while now. Since I’m at least 12, I’ve been coming out to watch this event, and it’s great to be here at home.”
Run us through some of your favourite Desert Classic memories then, those ones from outside the ropes?
“Just like sort of being in the clinics with, I remember there was Pete Cowen, and I think Lee Westwood was there, [and me] asking some silly questions and Pete giving me some stick about it. Just walking around and being in that atmosphere, and suddenly you’re inside the ropes; it’s a bit different.
“Being around some big names, it’s great for me to put myself in this position for the future, and hopefully in four or five years I’ll be out here with these guys. It’s good to get comfortable soon.”
The Desert Classic will be Thomas’ third European Tour start and given he knows the Majlis “like the back of my hand”, arguably his best chance of making the cut.
He shot rounds of 79-75 at last year’s Qatar Masters to finish 10 over par but showed he’s getting more comfortable in exalted company with rounds of 72-75 to finish three over and five shots shy of the weekend in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago. Since Abu Dhabi he’s added a little loft to his driver in the hope of producing a little more carry spin and to eliminate a “big left miss” that cost him on The National.
“I try not to give myself expectations, but you always expect something,” Thomas continued
“Abu Dhabi was good for confidence, just to be around those guys. It’s always a bit intimidating when you play a European Tour event. It’s good to play in those conditions and sort of get used to those quicker greens and thicker rough, which you don’t get much around here.
“As long as I just play my best and stick to my routines, I’ll be fine. But yeah, there’s always a little bit of pressure.”
As well as looking across at Luck in the press conference, Thomas also admitted to looking up to the to U.S. and Asia Pacific Amateur champion Luck who is ranked 110 places higher than the Indian and announced he will return professional after playing the U.S. Masters in April.
Asked if he was also thinking of switching to the paid ranks, Thomas put his station in the golfing scheme of things into perspective.
“I’ve still got to finish school first in just about two years, and then decide after that, 2019.”