Masters trailblazer

Sometimes it snows in April, a man once sang, and this past week, Ronan Rafferty has got to know just how true that is.

The other day, greenkeepers were clearing sheets of the white stuff off the King’s Course at Gleneagles, only a week after the region recorded its highest temperature ever for the month of March.

Rafferty these days lives only a couple of miles from the renowned course, his second wife Yvonne being Scottish and Rafferty’s love for the game and its grandest courses meaning he simply had to be situated somewhere near one. He often takes corporate groups there, treating them to some of his golfing insights and geniality as well as some of the finest wines from his impressive cellar. The corporate outings are something he’s totally comfortable at, just as he’s now comfortable with the fact his own career has fluctuated more wildly than even the recent weather patterns in Scotland.

It’s 21 years this week since he was playing in Augusta. The previous year he had become the first Irish professional to ever play in the hallowed tournament, finishing a highly respectable 14th. At that time he was one of the finest players in the world. In 1989 he’d finished the season top of the European order of merit at 25 years of age; to this day there hasn’t been a younger European number one.

In 1990, he would again finish in the tour’s top four money-winners. He seemed certain to remain one of its premier players for the remainder of the 90s.

It wasn’t to be. He would never get invited to the Masters again. By 38 he had quit the tour for good, concluding that he was a lot better talking about golf on TV by that stage than playing it.

We’ll come to why he did in a moment and what he would do differently if he had to do it all over again, but there’s a few things you should know about Ronan Rafferty these days before you expend sympathy towards him that he doesn’t want and doesn’t need.

He’s as busy as he’s ever been. He’s a far more rounded and charming person than the prickly persona he projected at the height of his powers. Back then, he neither sought popularity nor gained it, regularly brushing off the media, but a bit like the born-again George Foreman, the surly, guarded figure of yesteryear has been replaced by a much more affable and effusive one.

And bottom line, he’s happy. With what he’s doing, with what he has done and even with what he has failed to do. His first marriage ended but it still gave him two wonderful kids, now aged 22 and 20. Back when he was a kid, flying up to Newcastle to play in the British Boys Championship was wildly extravagant. These days he might fly to somewhere like Hong Kong for the day just to play a round with some clients. And for all the lows he experienced in the sport, he also experienced the kind of highs only a precious few ever have.

Take the Masters 21 years ago this weekend. What a tournament, what a weekend.

“It wasn’t nerve-wracking, it was just all hugely exciting, especially since I was playing so well at the time. The biggest eye-opener was the speed of the greens and the fact you were playing in front of so many people. A couple of weeks earlier you’d have been competing in the Portuguese Open in front of maybe 7,000 people. At the Masters there were over 30,000 there on the practice day alone.”

It was a different golfing world back then. There were no world golf series or championships, no exemptions from the European tour. Getting into any US tournament was a big deal and ordeal. He played well that time at the 1991 Masters because he got to play in Bay Hill and Houston in the weeks leading up to it but other years his preparations for majors were hindered by the lack of such a lead-in schedule, to the point he turned down some invitations to the US Open and PGA.

“We would all like to do things differently and certainly I would have spent more time in America rather than going back and forward all the time just to play the one event. You’d be knackered halfway through a season. These days the guys have their own private jets and can just touch down and be on the practice range in a few hours. We had to go by commercial flight.

“There were big gaps in the European tour. The first tournament wasn’t until April and the final one would be in October. Then you’d fly off to South Africa, Australia, Japan to come up with a decent schedule. I loved Australia, I played 13 winters and won five tournaments down there, and it was a great training ground but looking back I’d have played mostly in just America and Europe.”

Looking back, he could have been a lot fitter too. Last December happy Christmas at home came in the form of a running machine to help prepare him for his shot at the senior tour the year after next, but back in the day running machines were only for a freak like Faldo. You didn’t even practise that much. Talent was something you either had or you hadn’t, and Rafferty had it. Along with Rory McIlroy, his talent is still considered the most prodigious Irish golf has ever known. He’d win the British Boys championship at just 15, played in the Eisenhower Trophy at 16, played in the Walker Cup at 17.

Of course that talent wasn’t something so much a gift as something carved out on the great courses of Northern Ireland. He was fortunate enough to attend the Abbey Grammar in Newry where free golf lessons were available and Rafferty was duly happy to avail of them and the expertise of the pro at Warrenpoint, Don Patterson. Once he started competing and winning repeatedly though, the practice ethos seemed to fade away, exacerbated by the fact there really wasn’t one on tour either.

“Our work ethic was 10% compared to what the guys have now. There were no personal trainers, no laser technology or thousands of balls on the practice range; you just chipped a few balls maybe beforehand on the first tee. Practice and physical conditioning just wasn’t the done thing.

“Faldo was the first one, certainly in Europe, who was of that mindset. He was the one who had the vision to have an entourage, to have a trainer, a dietician, a physio and all that.

“It’s very easy to get lazy in our game, to think ‘ah, I’ll practice tomorrow when the weather is good’. But conditions between tournaments and practice don’t change; you can’t just play in good weather so you shouldn’t just train in it either. Faldo realised that. He worked really hard to do what he would do to win majors. At the time a lot of guys were saying, ‘don’t mind him’ but you know, maybe we should have been paying more attention.”

At the time Seve was the one he looked up to . He had flair, charisma, talent. He was fun, playful and generous too.

“I got on very well with Seve. I actually played with him a lot, either being drawn early in the week with him or being paired with him at the weekend when there would be tournaments on the line. There was much more friendship on the European tour than there was on the [US] PGA tour, and Seve typified that.

“He was happy to pass on whatever knowledge he could. He was a great bunker player while I wasn’t and he’d give me a number of bunker lessons. Another time we were playing the Welsh Open, it was desperately windy and he came over to me ‘how do you hit it low here?’”

Seve and Rafferty would be team-mates too one brilliant September. In Ireland when we think of the 1989 Ryder Cup we think of Christy O’Connor and that immortal two-iron to two feet on the 18th against Freddie Couples, forgetting that just an hour earlier another Irishman had made just as vital a contribution.

Rafferty’s opponent, Mark Calcavecchia, had just won the British Open but that didn’t matter to Rafferty; he was the number one golfer in Europe. Like O’Connor’s tussle with Couples, it would go to the 18th, where an Irishman would play an inspired shot to the green, prompting his American opponent to choke, Calcavecchia putting his ball in the water.

That year Rafferty was almost impervious to pressure. Back then the race to Dubai was the race to Valderrama. Entering that final tournament, Rafferty was marginally ahead of Jose Maria Olazabal. Essentially whichever one of them did best at the Volvo Masters was the best that year in Europe. They ended up being in the final pairing in that final round. They were tied playing the 72nd hole, Rafferty having made three birdies since the turn. He would birdie the last too, Olazabal would bogey it, leaving Rafferty one shot ahead of Nick Faldo.

“Commentators and people in general talk a lot about pressure in situations like that and how you’re bound to have been nervous. That just wasn’t the case. I played Valderrama like I was going out golfing with a best mate. I was playing well, had helped win the Ryder Cup, I was on a high. I didn’t walk onto the course and think ‘Holy Christ!’ It was ‘Okay, let’s get this done.’

“I’ve won tournaments where I barely batted an eyelid. And then I’ve won where I’ve felt terrible. The following year I’d win the Swiss Open, holing a putt from six feet on the last and I’ve got this wretched face on me. I’d just played 72 holes and almost every hole and every shot was mental torture.”

There would be plenty of mental anguish in the years that followed. He finished up with his old mentor Patterson who would maintain that Rafferty began taking too much time off from tournaments to design courses. “He’s far too young for those sort of distractions,” Patterson would say. “I never envisaged Ronan wallowing in mediocrity.”

All the competing and winning as a youngster, all the trekking across the world and back, his lack of fitness, his diet; it all led to physical and mental fatigue that led to injuries and more frustration. In 1998 he could play only six events all year, his left thumb was in such agony every time he hit a ball. The following year he opted out of the circuit altogether to get two bones in his thumb filed down and a tendon removed.

He would return in 2000 again only to miss 10 cuts from his first 11 starts. He was hardly able to practice, instead simply trying to play off the cuff, from memory, and as he’d say at the time, “You can’t build up any sort of confidence when you’re only hitting shots now and then.”

There were times like entering the final round of the 1999 Deutsche Bank-SAP Open or the opening round of the 2002 PGA in Wentworth when he shot a 68 that he was within range of the leaders and he’d experience “a flicker and remember how it used to feel”. But then he’d shoot a 79, and his old slump would resume.

“I was basically away for two and a half years with that injury and in that time everyone became younger and technology changed,” he’d admit. “It left me stranded but I’m not going to sit around moping about it. I feel very strongly that everyone has their time, some just go quicker than others.”

There’s nothing rueful in his tone as he says that. Just as Lee Sharpe will contend his career was a fulfilling one, especially if the sequence of clubs he played for were to be reversed, Rafferty can look back on what he understandably calls “a pretty good career”. Seven times he won on the European tour, five times on the Australasian. “Could I have won more? Absolutely. But I did okay too.”

He helped Europe win a Ryder Cup, twice helped Ireland win the Dunhill Cup. He takes a real pride in being part of the Irish golfing tradition; just as the likes of Christy O’Connor Senior and Fred Daly were a beacon to him, he’d like to think the likes of Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy, Philip Walton, David Feherty and himself have provided a link to the current generation.

His admiration for the current Irish brigade is total, especially Pádraig Harrington. “They’ve all put in so much work but Padraig is the biggest link of all to Fred Daly and that tradition. We grew up knowing Fred Daly had won the Open but it was something remote. Pádraig with the claret jug was something physically in front of us, someone who Graeme and Rory and Darren all would have dinner and laugh with. Now suddenly you have a flood of 16-year-olds in Ireland out there on the course, chipping over bunkers, knocking in three footers saying to himself, ‘I’m possibly only four years from being a major champion’.”

In so many ways Padraig and Rory remind him of the two giants of European golf in his day. “Pádraig is like Faldo in that he works harder than anyone else. Rory to me is another Seve. He’ll just look at the ball and say ‘Well, maybe I’ll try this’ and it’ll just come off.”

He is especially pleased to see that Northern Ireland’s contribution to the Irish game has been acknowledged with the Irish Open coming to Royal Portrush this year.

“I think it’s great that Fáilte Ireland is sponsoring a tournament that will be held in the North. It tells you a lot about how much Irish golf and people in general in Ireland have all progressed. It’s only right that the tournament be held on one of our finest courses. Royal Portrush deserves the tournament. It’ll give the whole country a boost and boy, does the country need one.”

He doesn’t get how some people get so fixated with whether Rory McIlroy’s victory should or shouldn’t be heralded as an Irish victory. It’s quite simple, says Rafferty. Whether Rory McIlroy views himself as Northern Irish or not, he’ll happily acknowledge he’s an Irish golfer, just as Rafferty himself will say he is too. “Golf in Ireland is one,” he says, rather stridently. “That’s what golf in Ireland is — the one.”

He has a lot on these days. The corporate work is going very well, so much so he has his own company, Rafferty Golf. Everyone seems to want to play and talk golf — celebs, business people, their spouses, everyone. Usually he’ll take small exclusive groups to a top course, they’ll probably stay in a top boutique hotel and they’ll be treated to some wine from his collection.

He’s also a founder and an ambassador of the Tournament Player Series, a tour for UK-based professionals in which they play 18 and 36-hole tournaments on the finest courses in Britain, personally selected by Rafferty, a self-confessed anorak who has sat on voting panels that have chosen the best 100 courses in Britain. Last month the TP tour played Denham and Royal St George’s; last week, Walton Heath. Next Tuesday they play The Berkshire.

“Myself and Paul Gilbert came up with the idea of having these events at courses that no longer have the facilities or length for modern tournament requirements but that everyone still wants to play on. It was originally set up to introduce young pros to the great old championship courses but now what’s happened is an awful lot of guys over 40 like myself wanted to join in the fun.”

There are some serious names among them, eight former Ryder Cup players in all, including Barry Lane, Andrew Coltart, Steve Richardson, Paul Way, Paul Broadhurst and Rafferty himself. The money is pittance compared to what they used to play for — Jamie Spence picked up £650 for coming fourth with a 68 in Walton Heath — but it keeps them playing the game and courses they love, while feeding the competitive instinct.

Rafferty’s gearing himself up for the senior tour in a couple of years’ time when he’ll turn 50. This year he’ll accept the invitation to play in the five tournaments on the main European tour which he won back in his prime and are still running today.

“I’m also going to play on the Challenge Tour more regularly. I’m under no illusions of the challenge that awaits me on the senior tour. I want to be competitive. It’s why I’ve the running machine, it’s why I’ll be practising a lot more. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m apprehensive on the senior tour. In a way it’s like starting out all over again, starting from scratch again.”

This game keeps making either a kid or a fool out of you.

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