History made as Rafferty heads for Walker Cup

This weekend, Caolan Rafferty will be part of the Great Britain and Ireland team trying to win back the Walker Cup from the USA at Royal Liverpool Golf Club as he becomes the first player from Louth to play in amateur golf’s most famous team competition.

The Walker Cup, which predates the Ryder Cup by five years, started in 1922 although there had been an informal match in 1921 at this year’s venue in Hoylake. It is a biennial match between the best amateur golfers in Britain and Ireland and their counterparts in America.

The inclusion of Rafferty, along with Mallow’s James Sugrue and Portmarnock’s Conor Purcell, brings to 47 the number of Irish players who have played in the Walker Cup over the last 98 years and the Dundalk Golf Club player finds himself joining an elite group that also includes many great players like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy.

Having started his career in Greenore Golf Club, it was the opportunity to join Dundalk Golf Club in 2014 which proved to be a significant turning point in Rafferty’s golfing career. Situated 10 minutes from his home in Dromiskin, he was now able to play regularly. His handicap tumbled and he started climbing up the world rankings. He also became part of Dundalk’s Junior Golf Programme and was encouraged to not only play in the major Irish championships but also those in Britain.

“When the opportunity arose to join Dundalk I couldn’t turn it down because it so close to home. Everybody agreed at the time that it was for the better. That kick-started me and having it so close that I could go over whenever I wanted, I found myself playing more and more and more.”

Last December he was one of 26 players named on the Walker Cup panel who were brought to Hoylake for a few days of practice and he admits that it was only then that he realised he had a chance of playing in one of golf’s most famous tournaments.

“It genuinely had never crossed my mind up until that point. I wasn’t on any Irish or Leinster team until 2016 so getting them ticked off was the priority.”

Rafferty’s laid-back nature meant that making the Walker Cup didn’t become an all-consuming passion although that didn’t stop it becoming a regular topic of conversation among those he met on and off the golf course. When asked about his chances of making the team his reaction was always along the lines that ‘if is meant to be, it’s meant to be’. He added: “People thought I was joking but genuinely if it was going to happen it was going to happen.”

He had been told in December by the Walker Cup captain Craig Watson to keep doing what he was doing and he stuck to that game plan. The Scratch Players World Amateur Rankings is a system that tracks the current form of the world’s top players and Rafferty spent most of the year in its top 10 while Mark Eley, who runs the Golf Bible website, wrote: “Caolan has risen out of the pack in 2019 with a number of excellent results. The West of Ireland was his only win but look at the number of top 10s. He has a good links pedigree and has performed well in various match play events too.”

Rafferty was at the American Amateur Championship in the week leading up to announcement of the Walker Cup team on Monday, August 19 and was getting worried that he hadn’t heard anything by the time he due to head to the Airport on the day before. His phone had run out of credit earlier in the week and he was depending on the wifi in the house he was staying in to keep in touch.

“I had packed the car up with the suitcases to head to the airport. I ran back into the house because I decided I’d check the emails before I left. I had been checking them daily but hadn’t checked them on the Sunday and I decided to do it then because I knew the team was being announced on the Monday, The thing then binged and in popped an email from Craig to say that he had been trying to ring me and the phone wasn’t working and he wanted to let me know that I was picked.”

It made for a pleasant journey home even though flight cancellations meant he didn’t get back to Dundalk from North Carolina until the Tuesday. But the celebrations were in full swing by then and the messages of congratulations were flowing in.

“The phone has been going non-stop whether it’s people calling me, texting me or reaching out to me on social media. The support has been really good. I just want to move on and get ready in my own wee way but you have to accept that everybody does want to congratulate you because it is such a big thing.

“This shows far I have come on and how well I am improving. To actually have it now signed and sealed is lovely. It is really nice to sit back and not to have the worry of it, not that I was worrying in the first place,” he said, smiling! Rafferty headed to Liverpool on Sunday to join the other players on the ten man team for a week of preparation before the two-day event commences on Saturday.

Rafferty, at 26, is the oldest player on the team by three years and is 10 years older than the youngest member, England’s Conor Gough. But he says there is a good bond between the group of English, Scottish and Irish players, their captain and his selectors.

“The team is very close. You have a mix of all types of people and we all get on so well. I noticed at all the practice sessions that it didn’t matter who you were with, there was a laugh and a joke in the match and plenty of abuse thrown whether it was needed to be thrown or not. We all get on really well.

“There is no one who feels superior in the group and there is no one who wants to be superior either which is good. That will create a better team atmosphere which will be a big help to us in trying to win.” GB&I won the Walker Cup on home ground in 2011 and 2015 but lost it in America last time out so Rafferty is hoping that home advantage will be a benefit this time around.

“Whether it comes down to the support of the crowd or whether it is the actual golf course itself or the weather you just never really know but it does seem to have an advantage.”

Support is one thing that Rafferty won’t be lacking in Hoylake. A large number of members from Dundalk, as well as Greenore, are expected to make the short journey across the Irish Sea to Liverpool with some having showed their faith a long time ago in Rafferty’s ability to make the team

“I’m finding out more and more names with people booking late now they know I am there. I know some people who booked last December when I was only on the panel. The flight out on the Friday night will be fun!

“You would like to hope that having that support will make it feel more like a normal competition than what it actually is because there is obviously going to be a lot of nerves. If it does come down to hitting the first tee shot, knowing that there is so much support there for you will make it more like your Barton Shield and stuff like that. I know once I get on the first tee that any half decent shot I hit from there will have the support cheering it on.”

September is shaping up to be a momentous month for Rafferty with the Walker Cup being followed by the Home Internationals in Lahinch and the Dundalk Scratch Cup on September 15 where he will be bidding for a third win in four years against a field that will include his Walker Cup and Ireland team-mates Sugrue and Purcell. Then it’s off to Westport for the Barton Shield All-Ireland Finals on September 22 as Dundalk bid for a first ever Senior All-Ireland title after losing in last year’s final to Athenry.

“Hopefully all will go the right way and if we do get the win at each one it will definitely be the best September I have had in a long time because all you normally do is start college or school. There’s plenty of golf this year.”