Tuesday, January 26, 2021

By Michael Wilson 

Over in the UK, an ‘Indian Summer’ is defined meteorologically as an unusually warm and dry autumn, and, for Aaron Rai, whose family roots are firmly in the Punjab Region of India, there was plenty of sunshine – metaphorical if not physical – on offer this fall with one big victory and two top three finishes as the Tour Championship in Dubai perhaps proved just a step to far in his breakthrough season.

GolfPlus spoke to the 25-year-old Englishman, whose distinguishing features include wearing a golf glove on both hands, to find out about his past, present and hopes for a future, having ended the season comfortably inside the Top-10 of the Race to Dubai Rankings.

Following the conclusion of the 2020 DP World Tour Championship, the final tournament in a turbulent European Tour season like no other in its 48-year history, the surprise package on the Race to Dubai Rankings must be English-born golfer of Indian-descent Aaron Rai.

A somewhat disappointing tie for 51st place in Dubai brought what has been the best season to date for the youngster, a season cut to a mere 17 events due to COVID-19, but his final two performances in Dubai, 50th and 51st should not, in any way, detract from a stellar campaign – his fourth on the European Tour, a first Rolex Series victory, the Scottish Open an obvious highlight.

Finishing eighth on the Race to Dubai, his season’s prize money of US$2.1m (INR155m) his best return to date, by far, ending his year at #79 on the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR), it’s onwards and upwards one suspects.

Aaron Rai took up the game, quite literally, by accident; after playing with his older brother’s hockey sticks as a toddler, he ended up with a nasty bruise on his head, so his mum went out to buy some plastic sticks to make things a bit safer in the living room, returning home with plastic golf clubs and the rest, as they say, ‘Is history.’

There were early signs something special was on the cards; in the summer of 2000, Rai’s father Amrik took him to the local Patshull Park Golf Club.

Amrik, no mean sportsman himself, having turned down a tennis scholarship at an American university in order to concentrate on his studies recalls, “We brought Aaron to Patshull Park as a five-year old boy,” recalling, “Many [members] came out to watch him play a few holes, but they got so engrossed with him that they ended up watching him play twelve holes.”

Continues Rai junior, “University was an option – a strong one as in Indian culture, academic education is seen as hugely important – but it felt right to pursue professional golf,” adding, “Had I gone for the more conventional route by studying for one of the professions, maybe I would have become a lawyer or something to do with Investment and Finance.

“But golf won out in the end, I could see a career pathway through golf and so far, the decision is paying off,” he says with a modesty quite rare in up-and-coming sportsmen.

25-year-old Aaron Rai doesn’t follow convention, indeed he is refreshingly different, to the extent of wearing a golf glove, not on one hand but on both, and, eight years into a burgeoning professional career, he doesn’t employ the services of a management agency or lucrative – but time consuming – equipment endorsement contracts.

Looking back, he represented GB at the prestigious US Kids Junior World Championship, and Rai’s education and golf went comfortably hand-in-glove until, at the age of 17, with strong academic qualifications as a safety net, he turned professional.

“I’ve no regrets, it was the perfect time to turn professional and learn what was required to play the game professionally from a relatively early age,” he reflects from the heady heights, comfortably inside the To-10 on the 2020 Race to Dubai Rankings.

Rai’s first port of call was the third-tier PGA EuroPro Tour, winning the 2015 Glenfarclas Open in Scotland – the start of a love affair with the ‘Home of Golf,’ – ending the season fifth on the Order of Merit, enough to gain promotion to the second tier Challenge Tour for 2016.

“It was a case of one step at a time, learning all about competitive golf, about life as a professional tournament golfer, and I could not have done it without the huge support of my benefactor, Shabir Randeree, a successful entrepreneur, admits Rai, adding, “It’s tough – and expensive – being a touring pro, but thanks to his support, I was able to enjoy my golf education without undue monetary pressure, but his belief in me and his spiritual support were equally important to me.”

Fast forward to December 2018 and Rai announced his arrival on the international scene with aplomb, winning the prestigious Hong Kong Open, leaving players of the calibre of Sergio García, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Tommy Fleetwood trailing in his wake.

The young Englishman’s narrow victory in the Hong Kong Open, provided clear evidence of his potential, almost exactly two-years-later and much closer to home, he proved he was no ‘one-hit-wonder,‘ by winning the Scottish Open – in a play-off against hot favourite Tommy Fleetwood – announcing Aaron Rai as a fully-fledged performer, a proven winner, the real deal, but only time will tell whether he is a force to be reckoned with, not only in Europe but also on the world stage.

Aaron Rai takes a relatively laid-back approach to his golf, not in a hands-off, couldn’t care less way, observing, “Golf as I see it is 50% art, 50% science and I try to stay clear of results based targets, providing I continue to learn about both the game, and myself as a person and believe both of these go hand in hand.

“I certainly believe things happen for a reason, and only at the time they are meant to be, whether good or bad,” he continues, adding, “I rarely set timescales as to where I should – or shouldn’t – be at certain points within my career, although – so far – I’m glad that my golf has worked out and I have no regrets choosing it as a career.”

Although not one of the growing band of fitness and conditioning addicts on the circuit, Rai does appreciate the importance of being in the best possible physical and mental shape for the challenge ahead, observing, “I will exercise two or three times during tournament week, and make sure my mindset is right, there are many simple, but effective techniques to improve both physical and mental aspects, the answer lying in how much the individual really wants to improve.”

And, while an increasing number of modern players pour over the vast amount of data and statistics now available to them, Aaron Rai is not amongst them, saying, “Personally, I don’t feel that I have any major strengths or weaknesses, however, there are always areas within the mental and physical sides of the game that can be improved,” he insists.

One key determining factor about Aaron Rai, the golfer, is that although that’s his chosen profession, it does no define him; he enjoys his golf and plays it hard, but he is no one-trick-pony, with lots of interests and distractions away from the game, from family and friends to computer games.

He says, “Increasingly, in the modern era of golf, the physical ability to hit the ball a certain distance has become very important,” adding, “Without the physical attributes, a strong mental game is very limited and vice versa.”

Standing 5ft 11in (1.80 m) tall and currently weighing-in at 165lb (75 kg), Aaron Rai is, in real life, of average build but in the new turbo-charged, high-octane world of power-play golf, the young Englishman is relatively slight.

Notwithstanding his subsequent triumphs in Hong Kong and Scotland, the emotional high point of his career so far remains his maiden Challenge Tour victory at the Kenyan Open in March 2017.

Rai’s mother Dalvir decided to accompany her son to the Kenya Open in Nairobi and when her son held on to win his first professional tournament – and on Mother’s Day.

“My mum was born in Kenya and [it] was the first time she’s come back to Kenya in the 47 years since she left, so I couldn’t have picked a better tournament for this to happen [so] to be able to share that with her was very special,” Rai said, reflecting, “Those sorts of things don’t happen too often in life so it was amazing.”

Rai is hoping his collection of coveted national open championships will one day include his ‘Home’ championships, the Hero English Open, where he enjoyed a top-10 finish last year and the national championship of his ancestral home, the Hero Indian Open where he finished tied-ninth in 2018.

“Naturally, because I am of Indian descent, the Indian Open holds a significance which goes slightly beyond a normal, regular tournament [and] it’s one I will try my best to prepare for in the future, it’s a tournament I hope to compete in for years to come and it would be cool to be crowned Hero Indian Open and / or Hero English Open champion at some stage in my career.

“I try not to have any ‘Top’ priorities regarding particular tournaments, through naturally The Open and any of the ‘Majors’ provide some of the biggest tests a golfer can face,” says the Englishman, adding, “One of the most important things is to try and continually improve year-on-year, that’s my top priority.”

2021 will, by coincidence see both the Olympic Games and the Ryder Cup take place within a couple of months of each other, and although the former, “Hasn’t really been on my radar,” he says, “Because we have so many talented players eligible to play for Team GB, whoever makes it onto the team will have to play great golf over a sustained period of time, and I believe even defending champion, the 2016 Rio gold medallist Justin Rose would need to qualify, so it’s going to be tough.”

As for the Ryder Cup, rescheduled due to COVID-19 for Whistling Straits, Wisconsin from 25th – 27th September 2021, Aaron Rai expresses the same sentiments, saying, “The Ryder Cup is still nearly a year away and I would have to play some very good golf over a long period of time to either qualify or be considered for one of European captain Pádraig Harrington’s three picks, but, if successful, it would, of course, be an honour to represent Europe and become its first BAME player to do so.”

Rai is one of a number of up-and-coming players of Asian origin making their mark on the upper echelons of the global game, and he likes what he sees of his Indian cousins, young and old.

“Shubhankar Sharma (24), in my opinion, is one of the best young players in the world; he has no weaknesses and has all the attributes – and the mentality – to become one of the best in the game.”

He describes Jeev Milkha Singh, now 49-years-old and from the same Punjab region as Rai’s ancestors quite simply as, “An absolute legend of Indian golf,” and says of SSP Chawrasia, “He is such a solid player, one of the most accurate players ever in the game,” and, of SSP’s fellow-2016 Olympian Anirban Lahiri, he says, “He has consistently competed against the best, has won consistently on the European and Asian Tours for many years now, which speaks for itself.”

Interestingly, with England more racially-divided than ever, Aaron Rai insists he has never suffered any racial discrimination or abuse.

He says, “The first golf clubs where I played, there was only a handful of other members from ethnic minority backgrounds, but I have never experienced any form of prejudice, not on a golf course or anywhere else, only once, many years ago when I was in primary school.”

Noting, without criticism he reflects, “It’s very common for players of the same nationality to play practise rounds and eat together,” but Aaron Rai ploughs his own furrow, saying, “ I have largely done things alone whilst I’ve been on the Tour because that works best for me, so a large element of my relative isolation is through choice.

“However,” he admits, “I do fall into an unusual, unique category of neither being fully ‘Indian’, due to not growing up there, nor fully ‘English’ and I do occasionally feel somewhat different when I hang out with the English or Indian players.”

However – he is at pains to stress –  “They have never made me feel different, my relative isolation is more out of choice, rather than my heritage or not being made to feel unwelcome, definitely not.”

Professional golf is littered with a mixture of both fleeting and enduring success, as well as promise, potential and hard-luck stories.

But, one senses Aaron Rai is different in more ways than his Indian heritage; he’s intelligent and keeps things simple – on and off the golf course – surrounding himself with good people where quality wins out over quantity, he has a life outside of golf and a fall-back position based on academic ability – should he need it – which, on the evidence of 2020, he won’t, his biggest challenge maintaining his improvement when his fifth European Tour campaign gets underway later this month.

10 Quick Questions with Aaron Rai

  1. Up with the larks or a night owl? A night owl, 100%!
  2. Traditional English food or Indian cuisine? Indian, for sure, Saag Paneer is my favourite dish.
  3. Hollywood or Bollywood? Hollywood, definitely, The Legend of Bagger Vance is my favourite movie of all time.
  4. Suited & Booted, or Jeans & T Shirt? Jeans & T Shirt, any time.
  5. Sunshine & Warmth of Dubai or Cool Climate of Scotland? Considering how I’ve played north of the border this year, definitely Scottish weather seems to suit me.
  6. Petrol Head or Cycle Lane? Perhaps not politically correct, but definitely Petrol Head, I love Formula 1.
  7. Party Animal or Small, Intimate Gatherings? Definitely small gatherings with family and friends.
  8. Olympic Gold or Green Jacket? A tough one, but it would probably have to be the Green Jacket, a close call.
  9. City Lights or Rural Retreat? I prefer quiet countryside, so rural retreat.
  10. Test Match Cricket – England or India? Controversial, I feel I can’t win here, but my head says England, my heart India, so India, just!

ENDS

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