Caolan Rafferty on the 15th green during the final day singles matches at the Walker Cup. (Pic: Fran Caffrey/Golffile)
Although Great Britain & Ireland failed to retain the Walker Cup at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake over the weekend, Dundalk’s Caolan Rafferty enjoyed every minute of his debut in amateur golf’s most famous team competition.
On Saturday afternoon he marked his debut with a 2&1 win against America’s Alex Smalley before losing by the same margin to the same player on Sunday afternoon.
Every step of the way on Saturday and Sunday he was cheered along by a large band of supporters from Dundalk, Greenore and other golf clubs in the North East as the region’s golfing community firmly got behind their man.
“The support was unbelievable. They are deadly. The shouting and roaring, which you need, was definitely a big help and I would just like to thank everybody who came over to support me,” said Rafferty as he reflected on the biggest week of his amateur career.
“It’s been a great week. They were a great bunch of lads and it’s a pity the result didn’t go our way, but it was a fantastic experience and I enjoyed every bit of it.”
The 26-year-old only played two singles matches after he and his partner James Sugrue were left out of the foursomes on both days, but he had no complaints saying that himself and his partner had been expecting it after not performing well in practice, although team captain Craig Watson admitted it was a close call as there was little to choose between the five pairings at his disposal.
Rafferty spent part of Saturday morning on the practice range with his coach Dougie Bell fine-tuning things before his afternoon singles match with Smalley, a 22-year-old from North Carolina, who had partnered Brandon Wu to a 2&1 win over England’s Tom Sloman and Thomas Plumb in the morning foursomes.
The morning foursomes were halved 2-2 leaving it all to play for in the eight afternoon singles with Rafferty’s match turning out to be absolutely crucial as he delivered the point that allowed GB&I take a 7-5 lead into Sunday.
Rafferty got off to a great start sending his opening tee shot down the middle of the fairway and he won the hole in par after his opponent missed a short putt. He went two up at the next when he left his chip stone dead and Smalley missed another short putt for par.
After halving the par five third in birdie, Rafferty took the par three fourth when Smalley failed to get out of a greenside bunker, but Smalley made birdie on the sixth to reduce the deficit to two holes.
While the American was excellent from tee to green, he was struggling with his putter and missed par putts at the seventh and eight as Rafferty opened up a four hole lead.
Smalley’s frailty with the putter then allowed Rafferty to get out of jail on the next three holes which were all halved in bogey, but he missed a short putt of his own on the par four 12th to see his lead reduced to three holes.
He needed a solid six foot putt on the next for a half before leaving a 75ft putt on the 14th stone dead to remain three up with five to play.
Smalley, to his credit, hung in and eventually got a break when Rafferty missed a breaking right to left putt from three feet for par on the 15th and when the American got up and down out of a greenside bunker on the 16th for birdie there was only one in it with two to play.
Nerves among the huge home gallery were certainly frayed at this stage but Rafferty remained calm even when his 300 yard drive on the 17th skipped off the fairway into a deep bunker.
He could only chip out onto the fairway but left his 133 yard pitch shot pin high although some 30ft from the pin.
Smalley, who had found the heavy rough off the tee, was also looking to find the green in three but missed left and then overhit his pitch and saw it fall into a greenside hollow from which he failed to get up and down.
That left Rafferty with a three foot putt for bogey and the win which he duly converted to produce one of the largest roars of the day.
“Being four up early on was definitely nice to settle me in and give me something to hang on to and then it was a real tussle towards the end with a couple of poor shots and I also missed a short putt. But just to get the win and a point on the board, my first one in a Walker Cup, is always nice,” said Rafferty.
On day two Rafferty and Sugrue were again left out of the morning foursomes as Watson kept faith with the Saturday pairings. But they lost by 3.5 to 1.5 to leave the match delicately poised at 8.5 to 7.5 going into the 10 afternoon singles.
Rafferty was selected to go out fourth and, in an ironic twist of fate, his opponent was Smalley once again. The World No.21 landed on the first tee in a confident mood after partnering Brandon Wu to a 2&1 win over the top GB&I pairing of Alex Fitzpatrick and Conor Purcell in the morning foursomes.
His confidence definitely got higher after he won the first hole to open up a one shot lead following a poor tee shot from Rafferty that left him unable to reach the green in regulation.
However, the Dundalk player bounced back immediately by getting up and down from off the green at the second, while Smalley failed to get up and down from the heavy rough on the left.
They halved the third in bogey under the watchful eye of Britain’s Prince Andrew, who is a former Captain of the R&A, but Smalley won the par three with a par after Rafferty failed to get up and down from a deep greenside bunker.
But once again he responded positively. Both were off the back at the par four fifth, but Rafferty chipped in for birdie, while Smalley saw his chip miss by inches. However, Rafferty lost the next hole when he again missed the green and failed to get up and down after pitching to 10 feet.
He looked to have got it back to all square at the par three seventh when he holed out from a greenside bunker for birdie, but he and his large following were left stunned when Smalley rolled in a 25ft putt to keep his nose in front.
The pair then halved the next three holes with the ninth being shared in birdie after Rafferty drove the green and saw his eagle putt burn the edge of the hole.
At the 10th he produced an absolutely audacious par to halve the hole. He found heavy rough down the left from the tee and then saw his second round go further left into thick heather on top of a hill looking down the green.
His ball was barely visible but he somehow managed to make decent contact and reach the green, albeit some 30ft from the pin. It was still his turn as Smalley had found the green in regulation from the fairway, but Rafferty stepped up and drilled his putt into the cup for a remarkable four which turned into a precious half when Smalley missed his birdie putt.
Rafferty again got up and down for par for a half at the 11th, but his luck finally ran out on the 12th when another drive into heavy rough saw him eventually reach the green in four and hole a short putt for a five. That left Smalley with two putts to win the hole which he duly did in par.
After halving the 13th, Rafferty took the par five 14th with a birdie as Smalley failed to convert a short putt which had been set up by an excellent approach shot.
However, once again, after winning a hole, Rafferty lost the next. This time he caught a flyer out of the rough and saw his approach end up over the back of the green. His chip came up well short and when he failed to convert his par putt, Smalley once again had two putts to win the hole in par.
That left the man from Greensboro, North Carolina, two up with three to pay, but Rafferty found the fairway off the tee on the par five 16th and then hit a superb second shot into the heart of the green. Smalley, from the first cut of rough, found more heavy stuff to the left of the green and failed to get up and down as Rafferty took two putts for birdie and the hole.
One down with two to play Rafferty hit a superb tee shot that bounded down the fairway to within 125 yards of the green with Smalley just in front of him. However, both pulled their approaches left and after a chip from Rafferty and a putt from Smalley, it was the Irishman who held the advantage.
But the American then drained his eight foot putt to ensure at least a half from the match and when Rafferty missed his putt from four feet it was all over and Smalley had avenged his defeat on Saturday after a great match.
To a man and a woman the large crowd of Rafferty supporters lined up to congratulate him on a great battling performance on an afternoon when the lack of a significant wind played into the hands of the American team as they won the singles session 8-2 to retain the Walker Cup on a 15.5 to 10.5 scoreline.
Although he had gone around in three shots less than he had on Saturday, Rafferty had come out of the wrong side of the result and was philosophical afterwards.
“It was disappointing but I done as much as I could. He holed a few putts and seven was the killer. He made a putt where I didn’t need him to do it. I didn’t really play great. I only hit my first green at the driveable par four so that kind of put me under a lot of pressure.
“Only for my short game I would have been in a lot of trouble. I had a few pitch-ins so it was really good in that sense. I knew I would have to play better than I did yesterday. I didn’t play well yesterday so I knew I needed a good day and to a point I did in that I pitched well but it jut wasn’t to be.
Rafferty now heads to Lahinch for the Home Internationals which run from Wednesday until Friday and then has the defence of the Dundalk Scratch Cup on Sunday before a few days rest ahead of Dundalk’s trip to Westport for the All-Ireland Barton Shield finals.