A firebrand still shooting from the hip
INTERVIEW: RONAN RAFFERTY: PAUL GALLAGHERtalks to Co Down native Ronan Rafferty whose passion for the sport shows no sign of diminishing as he prepares to enter a new phase of an already fascinating career
RONAN RAFFERTY might be 10 years out of competitive tour action after a recurring hand injury forced him to down tools, but the former European number one has remained closely involved and passionate about the game despite an enforced career change. With one eye now fixed on the senior’s circuit, the 45-year-old still has plenty to say and is never afraid to shoot from the hip.
The Co Down native was very much part of a different generation, the kind who sported entertaining “tashes” (moustache), flared or patterned trousers, and dare it be mentioned, golf shoes with flaps, or was that just Sandy Lyle?
Never mind the fashion – they were all at it – there was a time when Rafferty was being trotted out in the media as Irish golf’s next big thing, not unlike a certain Mr McIlroy is today, and with good reason.
Having grown up in the Newry area, Rafferty got a taste for golf at Abbey Grammar School in the border town before strong influences at Warrenpoint Golf Club provided new goals and desires to become the very best he could.
“In one year Warrenpoint had Peter O’Hagen, Rory McCormack and Pat Trainor all playing on the Ireland team at the same time,” recalls Rafferty, who didn’t have long to wait before he too wore the green of Ireland, aged 14.
“These guys were my idols; they got to compete in faraway places, like England. It all seemed so glamorous, and for me, there was an instant goal to do what they did. We were lucky as Warrenpoint had a strong reputation for producing great players and a lot of that must go down to Don Patterson, who was the pro there,” he adds, recalling names like Walker Cup players Raymie Burns and Paddy Gribben, Ireland internationals Kenny Stevenson or Jim Carvill, as just some of the top players to come out of Warrenpoint.
A year after making his Ireland debut Rafferty won the British Boys and tied first with Peter McEvoy in the 1980 Brabazon Trophy. Aside from his Irish Close win at Royal County Down, you won’t see too many references to Rafferty when leafing through the GUI yearbook for he wasted little time joining the paid ranks as a 17-year-old in 1981.
“Joe Carr was my Irish captain and he gave me great encouragement,” says Rafferty. “From the (Jimmy) Bruens and the (Tom) Craddocks through to present, Ireland has always enjoyed a rich history in golf, but there’s a danger of becoming too parochial. It’s great being a big fish in a small pond for a while, but it’s whether you have the guts to turn it the other way around and push yourself.”
Rafferty is of the strong opinion that if you are good enough you are old enough to turn pro – don’t waste time. “Don’t forget I was a proper plus handicap in those days, not like today where plus handicappers are 10-a-penny,” he says. “It was different criteria back then, we had to put a sequence of scores together, earn our handicap. When I turned pro there were only two-plus handicappers in the country, myself and Philip Walton, I was plus two and he was plus one.”
It therefore comes as no surprise to hear Rafferty endorse Shane Lowry’s decision to turn pro immediately after his fairytale Irish Open win or marvel at McIlroy’s impact on the game.
“Both (Lowry and McIlroy) had fairly explosive introductions to the pro game,” notes Rafferty. “Rory has gone from strength to strength ever since finishing third at St Andrews (2007) quickly moved him into the big league, whereas Shane has been a different entry altogether. His win at Baltray was huge, unbelievable but now he has literally been chucked in at the deep end.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing for he will learn soon enough if his game is good enough and the two-year exemption is definitely in his favour.”
Rafferty played in the 1981 Walker Cup at Cypress Point alongside the likes of Walton, McEvoy and Colin Dalgleish, and was back helping the latter – offering local knowledge – as he captained the 2007 team at Royal County Down. “There are always a few that stand out in these types of teams. Rory certainly did, he has that X-factor. Lloyd Saltman was impressive too but that one is mystifying, he looked like a great player and now you’re looking at a guy that can hardly make a cut on the Europro Tour.”
Rafferty gave an honest assessment of his own transition from superstar teenage amateur to new kid on the block in the pro ranks. “I have to say I’ve had great highs in my career, but I didn’t win as quickly as I thought I would or as quickly as other people thought I would, but when I did, I won good shall we say.”
Rafferty won 13 individual professional events between 1987 and 1993 – seven on the European Tour, five on the Australasian circuit and one in Venezuela. He was part of two winning Dunhill Cup teams for Ireland in 1988 and 1990.
It was time spent travelling, particularly in Australia, that Rafferty got into wine and has become an avid collector ever since. “It’s fairly well documented I’m into my fine wines. These days I still import and often use it as part of my corporate golf day experience. I might introduce a double-magnum or imperial four or eight bottle. It may look a bit flash but it’s not meant to. It saves popping all those corks in front of clients plus they look fabulous on the table – it’s just part of the process,” he says.
Rafferty will have undoubtedly uncorked a few celebratory bottles during the highpoint of his career which came in 1989 when he won three times in Europe, including the prestigious Volvo Masters. He played his only Ryder Cup that year in a European side that retained the trophy at the Belfry before finishing the season as Europe’s top golfer. He topped the order of merit with £400,311 (€470,000), compare that to last year’s winner Robert Karlsson, who pipped Pádraig Harrington with earnings of €2.7million
“My top end career was quite swift. I nearly made the ‘93 Ryder Cup then struggled. In ’97 I got injured and was pretty much done by then. I had two broken bones in my left hand and had surgery in Australia at the end of 1998 and the following year was pretty much another write-off,” notes Rafferty, whose enforced exit from the game through injury was not unlike another great Irish hope, Eoghan O’Connell.
Rafferty tried to make a comeback at the start of the millennium: “But in those two years the world of technology and equipment had changed dramatically. I basically went to Portugal, teed it up among 50 youngsters, had no idea who they were, and they all boomed it over 300 yards. That forced sabbatical meant I returned to a game that was different to the one I had known,” reflects Rafferty, not bitter about the advances but realistic to know he wasn’t competitive at that level anymore.
“Looking back, in 1989 my driver was 43.5 inches; today’s standard length is 45 inches. I had a standard steel shaft that weighed 110 grams; today’s graphite shaft weighs 65 grams. The head then was 200cc, today it’s 460cc, they’re massive changes in 20 years.
“What happened out on tour also changed, the physio units, coaches, trainers, dieticians, mind gurus, we didn’t have any of that. These guys are much fitter too. If anyone went for a run in our time we thought they were mad,” adds Rafferty, who would love to have been part of the technology boom. Although he advocates embracing new equipment, he also recognises the downsides.
“I have absolutely no issue with the technological advances of equipment,” says Rafferty, who also believes the collective golfing community could do more to introduce new people to the game. “My big bugbear, however, is how some membership golf courses are set up terribly. Too often there are committees who think they know what they’re doing to golf courses, it’s unbelievable.
“They (committees) employ perfectly good and qualified head greenkeepers to maintain their course then they interfere with everything. You can’t tell me there’s an 18-handicapper out there that knows better than I might do or a head greenkeeper about how to maintain a good golf course.
“In my opinion too many courses have not progressed with the times then suddenly someone comes up with the bright idea to simply move tee-boxes straight back 40 yards to solve the problem regarding technology, that’s not the answer,” explains a passionate Rafferty. “I’m a great believer in elevation and angle as a safeguard method against advancing technology – it also encourages more shot-making. We shouldn’t simply add length for lengths’ sake, that’s an easy way out. Unfortunately too many clubs have fallen behind the times and the problem now is there isn’t the same money to spend or throw about.”
The economic downturn has also impacted on Rafferty’s personal situation, not that it will slow him down. A successful career in television as a respected golf commentator and analyst with Sky Sports and Setanta Sports beckoned after he quit competitive golf. However, work with the latter dried up after all but the Irish arm of the pay-TV network went out of business.
“Who knows, I think they (Setanta) were unlucky in terms of timing, no one could see this recession hit the way it has. It was a fabulous team and we were working right up to the very end hoping it would work out,” says Rafferty, before getting in a quick jibe. “You need only look at the banks in Ireland, how they performed, and were then shored up by the Irish Government. We can’t all be as lucky as the banks and get a bailout.”
Television work and specialised corporate golf days – including fine wine – have been Rafferty’s main bread and butter since the competitive playing days came to a halt. “The corporate work has taken a hit while the television work has taken a complete hit,” he says, still able to see the funny side of a difficult situation.
“As I’m technically unemployed I now have time on my hands again and it’s a matter of getting my butt off the sofa. Like everyone we all have our ups and downs but this will serve as an important kick-start to my senior career,” says Rafferty, who lives near the village of Madderty, approximately 10 minutes from Gleneagles in Perthshire.
Rafferty based himself in London for most of his playing days but he has been in Scotland for almost six years where he and his wife, Yvonne, recently moved to their newly-built home. “I still keep my hand in by playing several smaller tournaments here and there and I enjoyed competing in this year’s British Open qualifying for Turnberry, and even though I was never going to qualify it was good to have a scorecard in the hand again,” says Rafferty, who plans to use the next four-and-a-half years to be ready to hit the ground running when he turns 50.
Rafferty also has more time to fulfil a lifelong goal of playing every links course on the British Isles. “That goal stems from my early days playing Royal County Down and many links courses around Ireland,” says Rafferty. “It depends what you class as a links but I reckon there are around 190. I’ve played 150 of those, so in golf terms I’m well onto the back nine, probably through the 14th on that little personal goal.”
As the conversation winds up, Rafferty slips in: “You’ll notice I haven’t lost the ability to talk.” Over 5,000 words of transcribed notes certainly vouches for that, but it made for good listening nonetheless.
Born:Newry, Co Down
DOB:January 13th, 1964
Residence:Madderty, Perthshire, Scotland
Turned professional:1981 (plus 2)
1989:European Tour Order of Merit winner (three victories – Italian Open, Scandinavian Open, Volvo Masters).
1988:Dunhill Cup winners (represented Ireland alongside Eamonn Darcy and Des Smyth).
1990:Dunhill Cup (alongside David Feherty and Philip Walton).
1989:Ryder Cup (14-14 Europe retained trophy, defeated Mark Calcavecchia by one hole in singles, total points, 1/3)
Other Interests:TV golf commentator and analyst, links golf, fine wine collector (import and export), specialised corporate golf