Rafferty wins West of Ireland Championship

Caolan Rafferty – 2019 West of Ireland Golf Champion.

CAOLAN RAFFERTY added another Irish amateur major to his belt on Sunday when he captured the West of Ireland Golf Championship at Rosses Point.

The 26-year-old Dundalk Golf Club player held his nerve on the final day to see off the challenge of England’s Arron Edwards Hill and Portmarnock’s Conor Purcell and win by four shots.

Having won the South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch last summer, Rafferty now holds two of the six Irish Amateur majors and remains on track to qualify for the American Amateur Championship and make the Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team.

“It’s a great feeling,” admitted Rafferty moments after sinking his Championship winning putt on the final green at Co Sligo Golf Club and acknowledging the cheers of the large crowd in attendance.

“I played as well I have in a long time this week. The course suited me and my golf was steady all week. We were blessed with the weather and I didn’t have to change anything from day to day.”

After opening with a level par 71 on Thursday to lie joint 10th, Rafferty found himself joint leader at the halfway stage after shooting a five under par 65 in the second round. After bogeying the second, he holed six birdies over the final 16 holes and shared the lead with Royal Dublin’s Max Kennedy.

In the third round, Rafferty again went low, this time posting a bogey free, four birdie round of 66 to move to nine under and open up a four shot on the field.

The previous Tuesday, at the R&A Foundation Scholars Tournament in St Andrews, Rafferty had blown a five shot lead in the final round in finishing second to Welshman Aled Greville and missed out on the automatic place available to the winner on the International team to face the United States of America in the 2019 Arnold Palmer Cup match being played at Arkansas in June.

“Those things happen in golf,” reflected Rafferty. “I just made too many mistakes in the final round at St Andrew’s and unfortunately Aled shot seven under on the day and came chasing out of the pack to beat me. I got over it quickly because I’ve had plenty of bad days in my career and that wasn’t going to be the worst day.

“Having just had that experience probably helped me going into the final round of the West because I knew if I played my own game it should be good enough to see me over the line.”

Playing in the final grouping as his nearest challengers, Edwards Hill and Purcell, Rafferty opened with four straight pars before moving to 10 under for the tournament after a birdie on the par five fifth. Two holes later he recorded his first bogey in 40 holes but he responded with six more pars to lie nine-under with five to play.

By that stage Purcell, who is the reigning Australian Amateur champion, had emerged as his biggest challenger having reeled off four birdies, following a bogey at the second, to move to seven-under and close the gap on Rafferty to two shots.

But the 418 metres par four 14th proved to be the decisive hole. When Rafferty holed for a bogey five, Purcell had a short but testing four-footer for par to reduce the gap to just one. It was a putt that slid agonisingly past the hole and left Rafferty in pole position with four holes to go.

As the Dundalk man parred his way in to finish on eight under, Purcell dropped shots at the 16th and 17th, and eventually finished tied for second, along with Edwards Hill, on four under.

“I didn’t panic when he got to within two of me. I knew even then I could make one mistake and still be able to steer it in. Luckily when I did make that mistake on 14, he failed to capitalise.”

It’s been a great start to 2019 for Rafferty after reaching the semi-finals of the South African Amateur Championship and finishing second at the R&A Foundation Scholars tournament. He now heads to Spain to represent Ireland at the European Nations in Sotogrande this week still chasing his dream of playing in the American Amateur Championship and the Walker Cup.

“The last two tournaments carried world ranking points so that should help keep me in the top 50 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. All I can do is keep playing the golf I am playing and see what happens.”

Rafferty is the first Dundalk golfer to win the West of Ireland Golf Championship having gone one better than the legendary Mick Ferguson, who finished as runner-up in 1951. He is also the first Dundalk player to win two of the major Irish Amateur Championships.

This was the first year that the West was played in a strokeplay format and Rafferty admitted that it was the change in the format that eventually persuaded him to head to Sligo from Scotland last Wednesday.

“I was humming and hawing whether I should even come over or not given my college work load but, funnily enough, I actually have a great strokeplay record from the qualifiers around here. I sat down and looked at my scores and thought, ‘well I’m actually not too bad at strokeplay around this golf course and to have four rounds of strokes could actually play to my advantage’. Luckily enough it did because I’ve a lot of college work to catch up on now!”

Dundalk’s other representatives at the West were Eoin Murphy and Aaron Grant. Murphy opened with rounds of 73 and 70 to lie T10 after two rounds but eventually finished T44 after disappointing weekend rounds of 77 and 78.

Grant opened with a 77 but then retired with an injury after 16 holes of his second round.