Why Aaron Rai’s staying grounded as he’s tipped to shoot for the stars

It has been quite a few weeks for Aaron Rai.


              
England's Aaron Rai tees off the 12th during day one of The Scottish Championship at Fairmont St Andrews. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 15, 2020. See PA story GOLF Scottish. Photo credit should read: Kenny Smith/PA Wire.
 

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England's Aaron Rai tees off the 12th during day one of The Scottish Championship at Fairmont St Andrews. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 15, 2020. See PA story GOLF Scottish. Photo credit should read: Kenny Smith/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only, no commercial use without prior consent from rights holder.

A stunning series of results on golf’s European Tour has seen him propelled into the top echelons of the game’s big winners.

Within the last six weeks, Rai has collected a second European Tour title at the Scottish Open, claimed second in the Irish Open as well as third place in the Scottish Championship.

And all this has prompted many golfing pundits to tip the Wolverhampton-born 25-year-old for the very brightest of futures in the game.

It’s a long way from the fairways and greens of Patshull Park Golf Club and the Three Hammers Golf Complex on the outskirts of his home town where he spent hours honing his skills as a youngster.

However, he remains rooted in the Midlands and equally grounded when it comes to his career as a professional golfer. After a spectacular recent run of success, Rai is currently taking a few weeks off from the European Tour.

But he is not taking time off from golf. The break offers time to rest, to practice, to reset and to fine tune a game that has already taken him to the giddy heights of fifth on the Tour’s Race To Dubai, behind only giants of the game like Patrick Reed, Tommy Fleetwood, Colin Morikawa and Lee Westwood.

It’s exalted company to be keeping. But for Rai, it remains very much part of the journey rather than the destination.

Back at home, he was practising at the new JCB Golf & Country Club in Staffordshire, spending more time working on his game.

“It’s incredible,” he enthuses. “For this time of year it’s in perfect condition, perfect greens.”

The course has been mentioned as a possible future European Tour destination, perhaps in the next couple of years.

“It’s more than good enough,” says Rai after spending more hours on his game there.

England's Aaron Rai celebrates with the trophy

To give it some context, the course is rated one of the toughest in the country already with the white tee boxes for competition a huge test for the very best club professionals.

But Rai adds: “They’ve got some black tees that are a little bit further back than the white tees so it’s a great test, it’s quite exposed so the winds can pick up. The greens are fast and slopey as well. It’s got everything you need for sure.”

Rai is planning to get back to the European Tour next month, probably at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

But in the meantime, he still has work to do.

Breaks from the tour are important and though in circumstances no-one would ever have wished for, the enforced extended break caused by the first coronavirus lockdown helped put Rai on the path to success when the European Tour resumed this summer and autumn.

“Covid was really bad circumstances but it was a time to reset and re-evaluate things and practice in a slightly different way,” says the former Shropshire & Herefordshire junior player.

“It gave a good four-month block to make a few changes. So going forwards, and having six weeks now it’s perfect really to get back to a lot of things that we were doing during lockdown

“It gives you time to try to really progress as oppose to just week-in, week-out playing tournaments and preparing for a tournaments because the two things are quite different so it’s good really to try to make the most of a window like this.”

Having collected his second European Tour title at the Scottish Open a month ago – his first came in the Kong Kong Open two years ago this month – Rai is relishing the time to make further progress with his game.

England's Aaron Rai on the 11th green during day two of The Scottish Championship

That stats show he is already one of the top three most accurate drivers on tour and top five for hitting greens in regulation. So does that take care of itself or does he work on those as much as the ‘weaker’ areas of his game?

“It’s a mix of both really,” adds the former Wolverhampton Grammar School pupil. “In the past, the practice has predominantly been around a lot of fore-game stuff and trying to consolidate those strengths.

“But that’s been the great thing over this year and where a lot of improvement has been made has been in focusing on the weaker areas, historically shots outs of the rough, short game shots around the green

“Also, I’ve got a little bit stronger as well, hitting the ball a little bit further which has really helped.

“The practice is definitely more balanced than before but now I think generally the long game has been good in terms of the stats but obviously it’s just as important as part of the game to practice and stay on top.”

That practice has certainly been paying off over the last few weeks.

At the Irish Open, at the end of September, he led from the first round, only coming up short on the final hole where a bogey cost him the tournament.

He bounced back immediately the week after to win the Scottish Open, a Rolex series event which offers double points for the race to Dubai, and three weeks ago finished third in the Scottish Championship.

For those who keep a close eye on Rai’s career, many felt success was coming with a number of good scores tempered by the odd average round.

But the rich vein of current form has been little short of stellar.

“It’s a strange game,” added Rai.

“You never quite know what’s around the corner, whether for bad or for good.

“I think the good thing was going into the last few weeks was the UK Swing, which composed of six events between July and the start of September in the UK.

“I played quite solidly, so whether the finishes were really high or not, there were really good signs around the game.”

Then came the Irish Open.

“I think we had a three-week break before the Irish Open and I felt good in practice but I could never have told you that those four weeks were going to happen,” he reflects.

“But the game was certainly in a good place. So it was good to get the results to verify that really.”

The event ended in a second-place finish after he had led the three previous rounds, when he took the aggressive option to go for an eagle three on the final hole and win the tournament outright.

However, his three wood instead found the rough, forcing a bogey and handing the victory to American John Catlin.

But Rai certainly wasn’t too down on himself for that.

“The disappointment wasn’t too bad actually,” he reflects.

“Later on that Sunday after the Irish Open I looked at certain things I could have done a little bit better, on decisions I could have made which may have resulted in a slightly different result, but after that evening I felt like I took a lot more positives than slight negatives of coming second in that tournament.

“Going into Scotland, I felt in a really good place mentally and I think in the end to finish second in a tournament shows your game is in a really good place, so going into the Scottish Open it was certainly a lot more positives than negatives.

“The form just kind of continued throughout that week.”

Aaron Rai chips into the eighteenth green

And he was happy to go with the positive option of trying to win the tournament outright instead of taking a more conservative, safer option?

“Yeah, for sure. When I went through the things in my mind after the Irish, that was the main one – that decision on 18.

“But at that moment I made that decision to try to have the best possible chance of making a three, which would have resulted in us having the best possible chance to win the tournament. The opportunity was there, it was the perfect distance for a three wood but the shot wasn’t quite executed.

“I think I could have maybe played it a little bit safe and in hindsight it’s easy to say I could have done this or I could have done that. But in the moment it felt like the right decision.

“It’s a good experience to be in that situation and still think that I could hit that shot. It didn’t come off that time but it was still nice to see that I can be aggressive and I can make that choice if it’s required.”

For many, coming so close to victory only to have it snatched away would take some time to get over.

However, for Rai, there was no hangover, winning the more prestigious Scottish Open the following weekend, this time coming from behind on the final round to beat none other than Tommy Fleetwood on a play-off hole.

“I was quite fortunate,” he says. “The conditions were really tough and we started probably two hours before the final group started.

“It rained all day so it was tough for even the early starters but it got worse further and further on into the afternoon.

“I was only five shots behind going into Sunday, which was still a lot of shots behind so I wasn’t expecting too much. I was just trying to play the very best that I could.

“I wasn’t trying to go out there thinking I had a real chance of winning.

“And then things have fallen the way that they did.”

Fleetwood birdied his final hole to take Rai to the sudden death hole, but missed a three-foot putt to hand the Midlander the victory.

“It can go either way – it’s very much like the penalty shoot-out of golf,” Rai says of the play-off at The Renaissance Club.

“It was a strange one really because after the tee shots of both myself and Tommy, if someone had said to me you’re going to have an extra hole after this, you’re both going to tie, I would have bitten their hand off.

“It was a tough spot to be in (on the deciding hole) – in the left hand bunker and Tommy was in the perfect spot.

“So it was really strange how it ended but it could have gone either way. But I certainly take something from the fact that I was in a different situation and I handled it well, but I think other than that you sometimes need a little bit of fortune.”

That win inevitably had the pundits talking of Rai in terms on future major tournaments and even a potential place in the European Ryder Cup team for Whistling Straits in the US next September.

But Rai is not one to be drawn into thinking too far ahead – for him it is about doing things right, giving himself the best chance of succeeding whatever the circumstances.

“I try not to set too many result-based goals to be honest, whether that’s the Race To Dubai or Ryder Cup,” he says.

“It’s not a bad thing to be aware of these things because they do get mentioned from time to time – it’s very hard to switch off from them completely.

“But I think it is kind of trying to get back into the process which might result in positive outcomes. That’s where my goals are and what I try to put my energy into.

“If I can continue to do the right things and continue along the same path then I’ll certainly be pleased with my efforts. If I can progress as a golfer as a result of doing that, then we’ll see what happens.”

And potential qualification for next year’s upcoming Majors?

It’s clearly something Rai would relish, have competed in just one so far; the US Open back in 2017, but he remains as modest and understated as ever.

“Qualification is quite up in the air at the moment with the Race To Dubai and qualification next year because this year has been unprecedented to any year before that, so I’m not sure how things will work,” he continues.

“But playing in big tournaments and playing against the best players in the world is always an amazing thing.

“So if I was able to play in a few of those, that would be great. It’s the biggest test in golf and that’s where you want to be but there are so many things to do to get there so we’ll see.”

We’ll see indeed.

But if his current trajectory continues on the same path, big things are in store for Wolverhampton’s Aaron Rai.

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