Fernandes leaves home to pursue golf dreams
USF golfer Rigel Fernandes left his home in Dubai at the age of 10. He packed up his life and said goodbye to everything he knew in hopes of being a professional golfer.
He is now one of the top golfers on the USF men’s team, having played in all 10 tournaments last season.
In Dubai, Fernandes grew up around golf. His dad lived on a golf course and wanted him to give the sport a try.
“I would go to the range with him and hit balls here and there, but never really got into it until I was about seven or eight years old and I started going out there and play and I really started liking it,” Fernandes said.
He said his parents never forced him into golf, he was a self-motivated individual, but their support drove him to be successful. Once he started competing, Fernandes found a passion for competition, a drive that would lead him to dominate golf tournaments as a young boy.
Fernandes was able to beat out many older golfers to win the Under-18 National Championship at age 9.
“I like being a pretty competitive guy in everything I do,” Fernandes said. “I liked the competition aspect of the game and that’s what drew me to it.”
Though he found success, it wasn’t always easy for Fernandes, who was much smaller than his competitors, giving him less power on his drives, which put more emphasis on his ball-striking ability.
“I was a lot smaller than everyone at that age so people would hit (the ball) 30 to 40 yards farther,” Fernandes said. “I was tiny and wasn’t hitting it very far and not generating a lot of speed so I thought there was no way I could keep up with these people.”
Despite his stature, he soon outmatched the Dubai talent and winning started coming easy.
“Once I started winning back home, I was winning by quite a bit,” Fernandes said. “I knew the competition level wasn’t where I wanted it to be. After I played the U.S. Kids Championship, I knew here was where I needed to be if I wanted to make something out of the sport.”
Fernandes decided to move to the U.S. to attend the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Once there, he was matched up with a coach who set up his tournaments, improved his game and laid down the essentials for his success.
“The first two years were very humbling, but after that I caught on pretty quick,” Fernandes said. “I grew about eight inches between ages 11 and 12 and made a couple swing changes, which helped my game tremendously.”
As Fernandes grew up, he began to make strides in his career, placing top-five in five American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournaments and winning two, according to the AJGA website.
“It was like a domino effect. I just had one good tournament and then another and another,” Fernandes said. “It made me believe that I could be good. From there I’ve focused all my attention on (golf).”
Though it seems like ages ago for him, Fernandes said he can still remember the feeling he had after his first win.
“It was a local tournament back in Dubai and I was ecstatic,” Fernandes said. “I remember the feeling the first time I won because I have the same feeling every time I win now. Whether it’s winning a match against Chase (Koepka) or winning a tournament, I still get that same feeling. It’s indescribable.”
Fernandes was fortunate enough to be recruited in high school, but had a different mentality when it came to choosing a school.
“A lot of kids want to go to traditional schools or schools with the most national championships,” Fernandes said. “I was kind of the opposite. I came from a country that didn’t have much and came over here trying to make my own name and USF gave me that opportunity.”
The USF men’s golf program, ranked 97th when Fernandes committed, has undergone a drastic turnaround since. At the time, Fernandes said the Chowdhardi center had not been built, the team had no locker room and the course was not as well maintained.
“When I committed, the coach’s office was in the athletic building,” Fernandes said. “Recruits who come today see a great facility, but when I committed it was just sand and trees, the greens weren’t very good and the range wasn’t good.”
Chris Malloy, the coach at the time, came across Fernandes by chance while he was recruiting another player.
“I was on the phone before I walked into the Academy and you could see the front part of the range,” Malloy said. “I saw this young kid, who was probably only a freshman at the time, hitting golf balls and I just said ‘Wow, I’m going to recruit that kid.’”
Even with some criticism from his family and coaches, Fernandes committed to USF his junior year, one year before being recognized as an AJGA All-American honorable mention.
“The AJGA All-American recognition meant a lot to me,” Fernandes said. “That was a national tour and national recognition, and I was among the 40 best players in the country that year.”
Once at USF, Rigel struggled early on, shooting 8-over in his first collegiate tournament at Haig Point-Jones Signature Course, but played in all 10 tournaments and became only the fifth USF player to shoot 1.15 above par. Fernandes added to his consistency with five top-25 finishes and an average round of 72.8.
“I don’t think I always play to the best of my abilities, but the weeks I didn’t have my best stuff I tried to turn it around and fix it,” Fernandes said. “That comes with confidence. It’s easy to have confidence when everything is going well, but it’s most important when things are down.”
Senior golfer Trey Valentine speaks highly of Fernandes, saying that he is the player to watch out for this year.
“He’s improved his game,” Valentine said. “From his putting to his chipping to his ball striking, everything’s improved.”
Fernandes has hit his stride in the U.S., but still feeds on the support of his family back home.
“It’s pretty tough. I only see my dad for about 2 weeks out of the year; that’s the hard part about it, but going to college here was definitely a big dream of mine and they have been plenty supportive of that,” Fernandes said.
Fernandes’ dad, Ivan, was able to make the 15-hour flight from Dubai to see his son qualify for the U.S. Amateur Championship.
“It’s the biggest tournament we play in and it’s really tough to get there, so having him there for that was an amazing experience,” Fernandes said.
Coming into his sophomore season, Fernandes faced a coaching change due to coach Malloy’s departure to Ole Miss. Coach Steven Bradley has taken the reins. Bradley said the change hasn’t stopped Fernandes from being a top performer.
“Rigel probably had the best summer on the team,” Bradley said. “He’s played well to start the fall and will be big for us this year.”
Fernandes said his mental game, one of many aspects of the game that his new coach emphasizes, is key to his performance on the green.
“(Coach Bradley’s) motto has always been one shot at a time and I’ve sort of taken that to heart,” Fernandes said. “It’s funny how coaches, they play these mind games, and when he says ‘one shot at a time,’ it sounds so redundant, but it’s funny how it pops into your head on the course and keeps your beliefs up.”
Fernandes has aspirations of being on the PGA tour, as do most collegiate golfers; but for now, he’s chasing his first win at USF.
With all of his success in the U.S., he carries the thoughts and support from his childhood home as his journey to the PGA tour continues.
“I have a long way to go, but if I keep giving myself these opportunities, then after four years I think I’ll have a shot,” Fernandes said.