It was news that prompted former European Tour player Gary Murphy to ask the question, ‘has someone kidnapped Caolan Rafferty?’
An R&A announcement confirmed that Scottish golfer Sandy Scott had withdrawn from the GB&I Walker Cup team with injury. First reserve Jack Dyer would take his place, and by consequence, Jake Bolton would move to first reserve with Englishman Joe Pagdin added as second reserve.
For what it’s worth, at the time of writing, Jack Dyer is ranked 212 on the World Amateur Golf Rankings [WAGR]. Bolton is 59th. Pagdin is 80th. Caolan Rafferty’s golf was so good before Covid hit that he sits in 21st place despite have hardly picked up a club in a year. His ranking alone would prove enough in the eyes of many to take a chance on the ultra-talented Dundalk man, however, the lack of game-time proved to be Rafferty’s undoing.
“I got a phone call from the Captain the day before the team was announced,” Rafferty recalls, just home from a day’s work at Dundalk Golf Club where he’s been working as part of the greenkeeping team over winter.
“It was the usual chatting beforehand – ‘how’s things, how was Palmer Cup?’ – and I was kinda like, ‘I can see where this is going already’.
“It just came to it and he said ‘unfortunately you’re not part of the plans this year’ and the lack of competitive golf was the reason I was given. I couldn’t physically do anything about that and that’s what annoyed me a little bit.”
Rafferty was within his rights to feel aggrieved. Having risen as high as 14th on WAGR, for a long time the 28-year old’s place looked assured on the team as one of the two highest ranked GB&I players on the charts. Players competing for Rafferty’s place had all the time in the world to catch him while the Dundalk man’s clubs gathered dust at home, but it wasn’t until the final hour that Rafferty’s fate was sealed.
“I was second on WAGR up until the deadline, which was the 24th of March, so when WAGR updated that day the top-2 were guaranteed selection. Until someone in the head office at WAGR hit the button to refresh it, I was second,” he explains.
“It was a bit of a hard one to take. Fair enough, I haven’t been playing much golf but the boys who have been playing around me, only one of them managed to catch up on what is a decent enough system.
“I know it has its flaws that maybe I shouldn’t have been that high for so long but it was just that previous golf had got me there and it’s held me there and I just thought I’d done enough in that sense, and having played one, that the experience of being there would’ve helped that too.”
Indeed the blow was softened slightly with Rafferty’s Walker Cup cap already secured having competed at the 2019 renewal at Royal Liverpool where he won his Saturday’s singles match.
“I’ve said to a lot of people, if it had been my first one, I’d probably be more disappointed,” he says. “The fact it’s my second one, I could stand back and say look, that’s the way things went, not my year, bad luck, move on and get ready to play and prove that I should’ve been picked. I’m looking forward to getting going now and letting the clubs do the talking as they always have.”
But that’s not to say Rafferty is going to put himself through an exhaustive pre-season, fine-tuning his game to ensure he hits the ground running once competition allows. In fact, it’s never been like that for Rafferty, which doesn’t make his Walker Cup omission any easier given he feels he could’ve had his game in fine working order regardless of scant preparation.
“I’m a funny one,” Rafferty explains. “I don’t do a lot in the winter to get ready for a season. I’ve gone to South Africa having played next to near no golf and have finished top-10 a lot when I go down there. All I need is a couple of days prior to an event and I’ll be fairly comfortable with what I do.
“It’s not like I have to be there day–in, day–out slashing balls or whatever. I’m laid back about it, probably too laid back at times, but I felt comfortable going. As mad as it sounds that my first event of the season could’ve been Walker Cup, I definitely would’ve felt comfortable enough to go and do it.”
He would’ve felt comfortable because that’s been Rafferty’s recipe for success throughout his amateur career, having proven his natural ability on his last competitive outing at the Palmer Cup in December where despite a complete lack of game-time, he put two points on the board for the winning International side at Bay Hill.
“Prior to Palmer Cup I think I played 27 holes in 16 weeks and I went out there, maybe I was a bit slow to get going the first day but in the singles I stood up and played the golf that I know can get the job done,” he says.
“In match play, you don’t have to be playing wonderful, once you’re more dogged than your opponent you can grind them down fairly handy in it.
“As I say, I would’ve enjoyed the challenge and felt I was ready for it but unfortunately it just wasn’t to be.”
Ireland’s been a barren place for golfers over the past six months with Covid course closures adding to the already dour climate of a wet winter on the island. Many have ventured further afield to chase the sun and competitive game-time and granted the majority of them are professionals, was Rafferty, as Ireland’s leading male amateur, ever tempted to take a plunge elsewhere to guarantee his Walker Cup place?
“It’s money at the end of the day – is it worth pumping in a couple of grand or whatever it’s going to cost to play Walker Cup,” he reasons. “It might sound awful and I don’t mean it to sound bad in any way.
“But I think this is where the amateurs being allowed make money from events could maybe help things. You could go and play a few events, win a few euro and pay for your accommodation for the week. These new rule changes coming in [proposed changes would allow amateurs to accept a prize in excess of the prize limit ($750), accept payment for instruction, and accept employment as a club professional] might entice more lads to do it, but unless you have funding to go and do it, it’s very hard to do it off your own bat.
“It’s also months away from everyone at home, given all that’s going on. It would’ve been a big decision to make and because I’m on the older end of the scale age–wise with golf, I don’t think it’s something I would’ve been happy with.
“In our house, we live by the motto, ‘if it’s meant to be it won’t pass you’ and that was my attitude the whole time. ‘If I hold onto second on WAGR I’m there. If they don’t want to pick me that’s their choice.’ Right, playing golf would’ve got me picked but it just didn’t work out that they.”
The Walker Cup might’ve passed him by this time around but Rafferty still has much to ponder when it comes to his future in golf. Ranked as high as 14 in the world on WAGR having won the South of Ireland and the West. Boasting 11 top-10’s in WAGR counting events. Regularly breaking 70 and with a Walker Cup to his name, much lesser men, at least in terms of their golfing CV, have turned to the pro ranks seeking gold. So why hasn’t Rafferty?
“I would never knock anyone for giving it a go. If someone wants to give it a go, fire away,” he says. “It comes down to the backing – if the financial backing is there, why not give it a go?
“My own thing on it is that I’ve always been a late bloomer. I’ve only been on the scene the last five or six years. Never seen a panel before that really. Everything’s come that bit later for me so I don’t rush it.
“Talking to Neil Manchip [Golf Ireland’s High Performance Director] about it, if I’m going to do it, it will just happen one day. I’ll probably wake up and say ‘ah, today’s the day I’ll jump ship’. But I think it’s something you could get bogged down with very quickly. If you don’t love the game of golf, why are you doing it?
“I think to myself, would it get to the stage where I’m like, ‘right, I have to make money at this now’, but do you still love the game as much as you did when you weren’t trying to make money at it? That’s something I always ask myself. Will I love it as much?
“Neil will always be slagging me that ‘there’s no chance you’ll love it as much as you do now. You absolutely love just going out and playing golf’.
“And it’s a different lifestyle. It’s not just standing over a five footer and getting abuse from the lads for missing it. That five footer could be worth 100 grand or could be the difference on the smaller tours between getting your card or not.
“It’s a lot of pressure. Some people are built for it, some people aren’t. It’s one that I don’t think you can just wake up and have it. You have to work hard to get it or you have to be so laid back that you don’t even realise what you’re doing.”
But which one is Rafferty? Right now, Ireland’s leading male amateur golfer finds himself caught between two lives. One where he’s earning a steady wage as a greenkeeper at Dundalk, enjoying his golf on the amateur scene and slugging it out like the rest of us. And then there’s the other side to life. The one that’s seen him jet to faraway places like South Africa and Columbia playing golf on some of the world’s finest courses.
If it were to click on the fairways, there’s no telling the riches Rafferty could play himself into. If it doesn’t, he knows the kind of life that waits for him back home. Does having a sense of both sides of the coin make that decision any easier?
“I would safely say no,” he laughs. “Some days I’ll think golf is lonely enough without being halfway around the world and being on your own, on a bad run of form, everyone waiting to kick you when you’re down. Do I need that hassle, scraping around trying to make a couple of hundred quid to pay your rent or keep food on the table?
“I know that’s what you have to do, but is it for me? I don’t think I could do it that way. I think I’d need that break – as everyone would love to get – but that Shane Lowry break; go out and win the Irish Open and it’s not like you won’t have a worry but things will definitely come a lot easier.
“I just think I’d struggle to head over to Egypt one week, and somewhere else the next for little reward on mini-tours. It’s not enough to keep me going. It’s going to cost a lot to do it regardless because you have to do it right. There’s no point half doing it but I don’t think you get enough in return for winning one or two of them.”
Rafferty’s witnessed the trials and tribulations of enough of his friends fighting it out on EuroPro, Alps and MENA Tours to know that often the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. His solution to improving the over-saturated pro game and the outlook of leading amateurs?
“The top end of amateur golf should be allowed earn a certain amount, a little more than we do now and try and keep more people in the amateur game instead of people turning pro for the sake of it – because what, they want to play for money?” Rafferty says.
“What’s the problem with amateurs earning €2,000 for an event? Just take the last end of pro golf out of it and make that the top level of amateur golf now.”
It would certainly help stop the influx of amateurs to the pro game, many of whom take to the satellite tours with little hope of success.
In Rafferty’s case, he has the results in the book that suggest he would have as good a chance as any to compete with the game’s best, should he decide to turn professional. What’s surprising is that a serial winner in the amateur game with a Walker Cup cap has yet to be approached by any professional agency enticing him to the paid circuit already.
“I’ve never spoken to anyone about it – never been contacted by anyone – I haven’t even played a pro event,” Rafferty reveals.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to be honest. The closest I got was the pro-am at the Irish Open but I look at boys who have had opportunities, and lads who have got serious opportunities, and I’m just kind of saying to myself, ‘what do you have to do here, do I’ve to ring a fella? Do I have to go down and paint his fence for him or something? What do I have to do to get this?’
“That’s probably why I’m – I don’t want to say lost – but why I don’t know what I’m doing at times because I’ve never had someone come and say this is what it’s all about. Neil has obviously shown me a pathway but he never wants to force anything on you, but say a management company or someone who has the experience in it. It just hasn’t come to me.”
Which is remarkable given Rafferty’s achievements in the amateur game. Taking nothing away from the likes of Tom McKibbin and Mark Power who both possess enormous talent and hold huge future prospects in the sport, but neither player’s CV compares to Rafferty, yet both were handed invites to last year’s Irish Open. To be fair, neither player has lived long enough to match Rafferty’s resume which might explain the reason Rafferty’s name is so continuously overlooked.
“I’m always wondering, ‘did I miss the boat?’” he says, at just 28-years young. “I’d always say that age actually benefits people in golf. Some people say you’ve a lot more scar tissue but depending on how you use that, it can actually be a really big advantage.
“When I was younger I had a horrendous temper. A three-putt would annoy me for days after type of thing. Go to an event and have one bad hole and all of a sudden shoot 10-over and I’ve another day there to try and make the cut whereas if I just dug in and forgot about it, I’d have another day to make a charge up the leaderboard.
“Connacht Boys was always top-39 make the cut and I could never get my head around it. One year I shot 14-over and went out the next day and shot level par and was 40th. I was thinking, if I didn’t just lose the plot on the second yesterday I probably would’ve been OK!
“I’ve obviously grown up a lot since then but I just think my age group is a bit looked over because they want the young, up-and-coming teeny boppers to be the face of whatever they are, and they feel these are the ones who are going to do it, but they haven’t experienced the ups and downs of what golf actually brings and maybe it’s something that needs to be looked into.
“I don’t mind breaking the mould if anyone wants to – not that I’m advertising myself here or anything,” he laughs.
Call it ageism, under-appreciation or general ignorance but something doesn’t add up when it comes to the opportunities Caolan Rafferty has been afforded versus his level of performance in recent years. Painting fences isn’t the answer but, to date, winning regularly and achieving a high-level of consistency hasn’t unlocked the doors either.
A condensed 2021 Golf Ireland schedule offers another alternative, however, with Rafferty’s first event expected to be the Ulster Men’s Stroke Play at RCD on May 31. It’s the first in a long line of opportunities for Rafferty to express himself on the golf course; to remind people of his talents and to knock down the doors that have stood stubbornly shut for too long.
“I would happily travel to an event today, tee up and fancy my chances to be up there at the end of the week,” Rafferty says confidently. “I’m looking forward to this year’s schedule. It’s nice and tight so if you hit a run of form at all you could have two or three championships by the end of the year quite easily.
“I’m looking forward to playing, hopefully adding another title to my list and just letting everyone know that I would’ve been ready to play whatever was to come for me.”