Caolan Rafferty might be the West of Ireland champion and has set his sights on the Walker Cup but he’s also come a long way and his feet remain firmly on the ground. By Paul Gallagher
Caolan Rafferty prefers to let his golf do the talking “then hopefully things will look after themselves”. It’s a good outlook, and thus far this season it has secured a West of Ireland title and a recent call up to the GB&I Walker Cup panel.
There was a time when Rafferty had lost his mojo for golf. He knew he had talent, but he was also realistic and honest enough to figure his chances of making it as a touring professional were slim. He briefly went down the PGA route but reversed after realising longs days in a shop or working as a teaching professional wouldn’t cut it for him.
Rafferty wasn’t knocking the profession; he just knew it wasn’t his calling. The experience reminded him that he still loved playing and competing. His best golf comes when he’s enjoying the game – and the laid back 26-year-old is certainly enjoying his game just now.
“In many ways it’s been the ideal start to the season getting a win so early at the West then following that up with the good news that I was selected on the panel for the Walker Cup,” said Rafferty.
“I had a great run around the West. The week before I finished second at the R&A Foundation Scholars Tournament at St Andrews. I had a five shot lead going into the last day, but you know yourself with golf, you just never know what’s going to happen. I played a little poorer on the last day and a fella shot seven under and beat me. Lots of people wondered how that affected me, but I learned an awful lot, especially how to dig deep and keep going.”
It was a lesson Rafferty learned quickly and took it with him to Rosses Point the following week where he denied good friend and fellow Walker Cup panellist Conor Purcell to land his first major championship.
“I’ve kinda got to the stage where I know what I’m doing, I don’t try to force anything I know I can’t do. I’ve learned to play to my own strengths, play the game I know I’m able to I suppose.
Rafferty credits Dougie Bell for developing that mindset. “He kinda keeps you ticking over, keeps reminding me what my strengths are and to work on that rather than trying to find a new way to play the game.”
Rafferty most definitely possesses a laid-back attitude, but it wasn’t always that way, it’s something he’s had to nurture over the years.
“In 2015 I started playing good golf. I went from worrying about a score to a simpler attitude of hit it, find it and hit it again. That was a massive change for me. Beforehand I was fixated with wanting to play good golf, wanting to make teams. I’d see lads on Irish and Leinster teams and was always wanting to be there.
“When you get one or two sickeners in your career you soon realise you can’t pick the team. I decided to go out and enjoy my golf and see where it took me.”
Rafferty wheels back to 2012 and a time when he’d “fallen out with the game”. Decisions were there to be made, stick at what he was doing or try something different? He started his PGA exams to become a teaching professional and worked with PGA professional Brian Kerley at Dundalk Driving Range before following him to Ardee Golf Club.
“I knew I didn’t have the patience for the shop and not getting to play much golf. I kinda got my eyes opened, so I said, ‘you know what, let’s focus on playing golf again, enjoy it and see what happens’.
“I knew as a golfer I was improving but was also aware I wasn’t good enough to turn pro and make it as a playing professional. That’s when I decided it was time to get my head back into the books.”
So far it has turned out to be one of his best decisions, but these days there are different commitments that sometimes get in the way of golf.
“Unfortunately, I miss the Irish Amateur Open because of exams,” said Rafferty, in his second year studying Business and Management through the Paddy Harrington Scholarship in Maynooth. “It’s a pity considering it’s back at Rosses Point, but that’s just the way it goes. Exams are set, you can’t be changing everything for one fella, have to take this one on the chin and move on.”
More evidence of that easy-going attitude from someone who is comfortable in their own skin, especially after winning the West.
“I always said if I get one championship, it would be like getting that monkey off your back. Getting over the line once will help get over it again. You know what to expect and you know what needs to be done. It gives you extra confidence,” added Rafferty, who enjoyed the duel with Purcell in Sligo.
“Conor’s a really good friend and right up until it got tight, we were having a joke and a laugh.” Who knows, the way things are progressing, could it be a potential Irish Walker Cup partnership?
“Obviously every amateur wants to play Walker Cup, it’s the highest accolade there is. If someone said to me two years ago that I’d be on a Walker Cup panel I would have laughed at them. I wasn’t at that level. I’ve obviously improved and got the nod for the panel which is great.
“It’s a bonus for me to be on the panel to be honest. Making the team would be a dream come true, but all of that is out of my hands.”
Rafferty made the panel alongside four other Irishmen; John Murphy, Mark Power, James Sugrue and Purcell. Another Irish quintet! A potential repeat of the class of 2015 at Royal Lytham? GB&I will take on the Americans at Hoylake from September 7-8, 2019.
“Five great lads, and perhaps there could have been one or two more,” says Rafferty. “Hopefully we can all push on and create the Famous Five again, that would be something special.”
IRISH GOLFER MAGAZINE