Caolan Rafferty wins South of Ireland after epic final

Dundalk man fought off Rowan Lester after 20 holes on a long final day at Lahinch

Putts might win championships but for Dundalk’s Caolan Rafferty his maiden victory in the South of Ireland Amateur Open owed as much to heart as it did to the deadly 18 footer that clinched victory or the stellar strikes that kept his title bid alive.

The powerful 25-year old became the first Dundalk member to win an amateur "major" when he consigned international teammate Rowan Lester to his second championship final defeat at the Co Clare links in the space of three years.

While 22-year-old Lester may beat himself up for missing a three-footer for birdie and victory on the 18th after his spectacular third fizzed back to the hole-side, Rafferty raw determination – even more so that his often brilliant ball-striking – proved the difference.

A 270-yard three wood into the heart of the 18th green kept him alive and while he drove into sand at the 20th, he didn’t panic but hit a searing, 209-yard four-iron to 18 feet to set up the winning birdie putt.


While Lester outgunned Forest Little's Jack McDonnell (23) by 3 and 2 in his semi-final, Rafferty showed he meant business when he gave leading qualifier Mark Power of Kilkenny no option with a 5 and 4 win to join Lester in the final.

When the action started, he found it hard to see his reads clearly but twice came from behind to force sudden death before claiming his long-awaited “major” win with that sweet birdie four at the second extra hole.

“The door eventually opened,” Rafferty said with a grin. “I’m delighted it did. I’ve been knocking and kicking and running into that door today and I wasn’t letting it go.

“As everyone saw on the last three holes, I showed everyone how much I wanted it.

“I’ve been wanting to win one of these since I started playing the championships. It seems like forever ago. But to actually get over the line is massive.”

Two down after Lester won the second in birdie and the fifth with a solid in par, Rafferty fought back to win the eighth with a conceded two, the 12th with a birdie four from five feet and the 13th with a gritty par to get his nose in front.

Both men struggled to find their range on Lahinch’s pristine greens and it was not until Rafferty overshot the 15th and then found a bunker at the 17th and lost both holes to pars that the final really came to life.

Lester suddenly found himself one up playing the last and within touching distance of the title that escaped him at the final hurdle two years ago.

With the new championship tee adding 35 yards to the 18th, he decided to play it as a three-shotter and Rafferty went for broke and hit the jackpot.

After Lester had hit a lay up that left him around 90 yards from the pin, Rafferty’s big drive left him 260 yards to the front edge and he caught his three-wood from the left rough perfectly, rifling a high draw off the right hand bunkers that settled 40 feet below the pin.

“I probably won’t hit two better strikes,” Rafferty said of the shots that set up an easy four at the 18th that put Lester under huge pressure.

“That new tee makes the hole fantastic. We reckoned we had 260 front and whatever the pins was on. I knew I had to hit it out of the screws.”

Lester’s reply was world class, floating to the back of the green before screwing back to finish no more than three feet above the hole.

“When his shot came in, I had the raise the putter to acknowledge it,” Rafferty said of Lester’s wonderful wedge. “You have to take your hat off and clap it because it was class.”

But the coup de grace never came and while Rafferty lipped out from 12 feet for birdie and victory at the 19th, he made four at the 20th despite driving into sand, sending a 209-yard four-iron rocketing to 18 feet after Lester missed the green right and wedged to 25 feet from fluffy rough.

“You never want to see anyone miss a putt like that especially on 18,” Rafferty said of Lester’s miss on the last. “But for it to slip by and for him to give me the chance again, then I said to myself, ‘Now you have to take it’.”

South of Ireland Amateur Open, sponsored by Pierse Motors Volkswagen, Lahinch

Semi-finals: Rowan Lester (Hermitage) bt Jack McDonnell (Forrest Little) 3/2; Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk) bt Mark Power (Kilkenny) 5/4.

Final: Rafferty bt Lester 20th.