ATLANTA – As far as golf prodigies go, Rayhan Thomas was textbook. He had won a professional event at just 16 years old, and a year later nearly defended his title while breaking a world record. He narrowly missed out on a Masters berth, reached the top 25 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and signed with the most storied program in college golf.
In every sense, he was a world-beater.
But then golf decided to punch back.
About four years ago, while Thomas was still in the midst of his impressive run, the swing yips began to materialize. It started as small periods where Thomas struggled to break 85 on his home course, but by the time he arrived at Oklahoma State in the fall of 2019, they had fully manifested.
“It affected pretty much every part of my game,” Thomas said. “It took a toll on me physically and mentally. … It definitely did cross my mind, maybe taking a break, but deep down I know I love this sport. It’s what keeps me happy.”
And it’s what has motivated him to dig his way out of what sometimes seemed like a never-ending hole. Now a junior, Thomas is still digging, but he’s also enjoying his best golf since his standout junior days.
“I’m just trying to tap into what made me enjoy the game as a kid,” Thomas said.
Thomas, who was born and raised in Dubai, made headlines in 2016 when he won a Mena Tour event at his home club, Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club (just two weeks after one of those aforementioned rough patches). Twelve months later he tied Mark Calcavecchia’s world record by making nine straight birdies during the second round of his title defense before finishing runner-up. The following year he came second at the Asia-Pacific Amateur and then won again on the Mena Tour, this time in Bahrain.
“I have as much confidence as the best player in the world, that’s for sure,” Thomas said back in 2018, shortly after he committed to the Cowboys. “I don’t show it, but I do. … But I also don’t want to get too far ahead of myself and put too much pressure on myself.”
He didn’t have to; others took care of that for him. To commemorate his first professional victory, members at Dubai Creek attached a plaque to the rock that had saved Thomas’ ball from finding the water on the final hole of the last round. “Rayhan’s Rock,” it was dubbed.
By 2019, though, Thomas had hit rock bottom. He began the year with two European Tour starts and opening in 67 to sit inside the top 10 at the Saudi International.
“And then I just blew up,” said Thomas, who followed with a 77 to miss the cut.
Things got worse. He didn’t even crack the top 200 at the British Amateur, finished dead last at the Western Amateur, beat only a handful of players at the U.S. Amateur and ended up outside of the top 60 at the Asia-Pacific.
In his first two seasons in college, Thomas qualified for just four lineups – all came during his freshman season, which was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, just when Thomas was starting to turn his game around. Unable to return home to Dubai, Thomas spent that summer in Stillwater. In some ways, it was a blessing in disguise. While the golf world stood still, Thomas got to work. Under the tutelage of Oklahoma State coaches Alan Bratton and Donnie Darr, Thomas laid the groundwork for his comeback.
“There was no real reason for Coach Bratton or Coach Darr to keep me around for very long,” Thomas said, “but they clearly still saw something in me, and they hung with me and kept trying to help me get better every day.”
Despite not cracking the lineup last season, Thomas put in another good summer of practice this year, making a few swing changes, and finally found something. A big drill guy, Thomas has kept things technical on the range with his many training aids – his title as the Padraig Harrington of college golf is still safe – but he’s moved away from that in competition, freeing himself up.
“Golf’s a hard game, and you’re usually not as bad as you think you are, and good golf is not usually as far away as sometimes it can feel … but it happens all the time, even to the best players in the world,” Bratton said. “But Ray did all the work. He’s such a great kid, and through his struggles he’s kept a great attitude and worked really hard. He came to the course with a smile on his face, trying to just work to keep getting better, and he’s played well this semester.”
In five starts as a junior, Thomas has yet to finish outside the top 20. He’s qualified for two starting lineups, including for this week’s East Lake Cup, where he tied for eighth in stroke play and tied his match against Arizona State’s Cameron Sisk, a frontrunner for this season’s Haskins Award. In his individual tournaments, he has two more top-10s, most notably a runner-up showing at the Herb Wimberly Intercollegiate.
While progress has been made, Thomas knows his work is not done. He’s still ranked outside the top 1,000 in the world, which will cost him an invite to the Asia-Pacific this year.
“I don’t think I’m anywhere close,” Thomas said, “which is a good thing because I know I can get a hell of a lot better.”
For the one they call “Sugar Ray,” that is a sweet feeling.