Dundalk Golf Club's Caolan Rafferty has won two of Ireland's amateur major titles, has represented Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup and now plans to turn pro.
Were you a Tiger Woods, driving the ball prodigious lengths before you started infants’ school, or was it much later when you developed an interest in the game?
I had an interest from the age of three, playing with plastic clubs around the house. I then started to caddy for my dad, Ciarán, when I was eight, but it probably wasn’t until I was 13 that I really got into it, starting to play competitions in Greenore where my father was a member. I loved the game and haven’t stopped playing since.
Who had the biggest influence on you early on?
My parents and grandparents would have always encouraged me, getting me clubs and all the gear I needed. They would have encouraged me on good and bad days, and I can say there were plenty of bad ones early on.
There’s a soccer interest in your family – did you share it when you were young?
I would have had an interest when I was younger, playing a bit with Glenmuir. A lot of my friends played with them and I loved it, but when I started to get better at the golf, I was always concerned with getting injured, so I decided I would focus on the golf. Plus, I was a better golfer than a footballer.
Is it true to say you togged out at Gaels football club in your early youth?
I played a bit with them, again, mainly due to the fact my friends were also going there.
And at St. Joseph’s when your family moved to Dromiskin?
Yes, briefly, but nothing too serious, as I was in between age groups and didn’t really have much interest at that stage. I was beginning to play in golf competitions and they took up most of my time. I wasn’t great at Gaelic, I will admit.
So, it was always going to be golf?
Golf always came first with me. I won some of the small competitions and really fell in love with the game. I started to see improvements in my game, and would spend all my summer days playing, trying to get better at it. I loved trying new things, and every day was different. That can be frustrating at times, but it’s why all golfers go back out, trying to correct their mistakes.
Was there any particular round that you can recall in the early stages?
Not really. I just remember my first competition. I got a handicap of 28 and won it. The next day I was off 14. That has always stuck with me, getting a huge cut like that.
Who was your first mentor at Greenore?
Seán Creighton and Adrian Fagan were the juvenile convenors, and they would have started me playing in 12-hole competitions. They moved me straight into the 18 holes, because I was better than they had originally thought, I think. They would have picked me for teams to represent the club at U15.
Your first competitions?
First competitions would have been on juvenile days. Then I was allowed to play the men’s competitions on a Sunday and I loved it. My dad took me to play some of the provincial U15 competitions for the experience. I suppose it opened my eyes to how good I was and how good I needed to become if I was to compete.
When did you score your first significant win?
The Gold Medal in Greenore, a matchplay event for the men. I think I was 16 or 17, and winning it gave me a lot of confidence. I followed that up with the Junior Scratch Cup not too long after that.
Did you style yourself on any particular golfer?
I suppose like all young lads I would have been watching Tiger Woods. We all wanted to be him. What he was doing in the sport was unbelievable and I suppose we would try things he was doing. We wore the red t-shirts and the Nike shoes, thinking that would make us better, and nearly as good as Tiger.
What age were you when you switched to Dundalk?
I was 22. It was mainly due to the fact I was living in Dromiskin, and the club was only five minutes over the road. It made more sense for me to join as I could practice more and wouldn’t have to drive the 30 minutes out to Greenore.
Who guided you at Blackrock?
There is a long list who would have supported me from the club, and continue to support me. The members are brilliant, in particular giving me encouragement when I’m in competition. Even when I have played poorly they would still keep in contact, which is nice. I’m part of a good group of lads who play regularly on Saturdays; they, in particular, would have helped me along the way. But overall, I think I can say nearly everyone in the club has guided me in one way or another. It’s a brilliant club to be a member of.
When did you get down to scratch?
When I was around 18. The good thing about it was, it allowed me to play in all the major competitions around Ireland. I then got to plus figures and have just steadily lowered the handicap in the last few years. Mind you, playing off plus-six isn’t much craic at times. For one thing, I mightn’t be much use in a team event!
What was your first significant win – or placing – in recent times?
In 2015, I was beaten in the semi-final of the North of Ireland in Royal Portrush. That got me some recognition with the Irish set-up, putting me on the radar. It gave me a lot of confidence and really helped get me to where I am today. The major competitions in Ireland are very competitive with many great players competing. So to get to the semi-final was a big achievement.
Tell us about your scholarship?
I decided to go back to college after talking to one of my mates, Eugene Smith, who had taken that route. I rang the golf manager in Maynooth, Barry Fennelly, asking about the possibility of me going there. It was brilliant to get the scholarship; it has helped me to improve a lot. The programme’s a great one, and I’ve loved the three years I’ve been there. Barry has done brilliant work for the golf programme in the last number of years and some great players have gone through it. There is a sport psychologist, strength and conditioning coach, as well as physio, short game, long game and putting coaches. It has helped me a lot and really improved my game, as well as, hopefully, getting a degree.
Winning the first of your own club’s Scratch Cups must be in the special category?
It was always a goal of mine to win the Scratch Cup and the first one was really good to get. There are some great names on it, Pádraig Harrington among them, and to be alongside them is great. It’s nice to be able to win something at local level, and the Scratch Cup creates a great buzz about the club.
And the South of Ireland?
The South was an amazing feeling. Driving back up the road with my girlfriend, Hayley, and the trophy in the car was a feeling I won’t ever forget. To bring the cup to the club was unbelievable. I remember coming in and all the members were congregated at the front of the clubhouse, waiting for me. I wasn’t expecting it, and it really made the win even sweeter. Unfortunately, my dad, uncle and sister, who had driven down that morning, got lost on the way back and missed the initial buzz. But they made up for it that night.
Then came the West of Ireland last year?
Winning the West of Ireland was a further boost to my confidence; it reassured me that I was good enough to compete at the highest level. It opened the door to a lot of teams, teams that I didn’t ever think I’d be playing on when I was younger.
The South is a mixture of match- and strokeplay; the West was stroke throughout – which is your preference?
I prefer strokeplay as it suits my game a little better. I am fairly consistent and can go quite low at times. For that reason, strokeplay would suit me better. I would much rather have all the events decided that way.
You’ve played courses all over the world – which would be your favourite?
Some of the courses the Ireland team got to play in South Africa were amazing. We played Leopard Creek this year. It’s built on a nature reserve, and it was absolutely mental to look to the course’s outskirts and see elephants rambling around. We also played some brilliant ones in England, like Lytham St. Anne’s, which is so tough but, at the same time, enjoyable. The one, however, that I would rate the best is Royal Portrush. I love playing there. It’s always in great condition and on a nice day the views are amazing. Watching Shane Lowry winning the Open there last year was brilliant.
Have you been at any other Majors?
I’ve been to the Open a couple of times now. My first was in Troon back in 2004. I also went to the Ryder Cup in the K-Club, but being a golfer, it’s hard to walk around and watch, because all you want to do is to be out there yourself. There’s nothing to beat competing.
Is it your ambition to play in one?
Absolutely. I think I can speak for all the lads I play with when I say playing at the very top means you have made it. Getting to play with the best in the world would be class.
Which brings us to the big question – will we see Caolan following in the footsteps of another outstanding amateur with the surname Rafferty, Warrenpoint’s Ronan, making it into the pro ranks?
I think at this stage it would be foolish of me not to give it a go. I have spent so long at it and made plenty of sacrifices not to try my luck. I have a lot of support from my family and girlfriend, so I think I will have to give it serious consideration. It’s been an ambition I have had from when I was younger. I feel I should turn pro and see where it might bring me.
Ever meet Rory McIlroy or any of the other top pros?
I had a Zoom call with Rory only a couple of weeks ago when I was with the Irish team. It was brilliant to hear his thoughts on the game and all he has done. He’s No1 in the world for a reason, so you can imagine we listened to every word he had to say. We also had Zoom calls with Paul McGinley and Shane Lowry, the lads giving us great insight into the life of a pro, and the things we need to do if we are going to make a living at it.
The best you have played with?
I was lucky enough to play the pro-am at the Irish Open in Lahinch, teaming up with Haotang Li. This was class. I learned so much from playing with him.
Your favourite hole at Dundalk?
The 7th. The shot into the green with the water on the right and the sloped green is a challenge which I like to take on every so often. It’s probably the course’s signature hole.
You’ve broken two course records, at Royal Portrush and Prince’s, in England – how close have you gone to lowering Dundalk’s best-ever?
I have shot -9 in Dundalk, but it was off the white markers. I have hit some low ones off the back markers, but haven’t just got to the course record. It’s something I would love to achieve.
What advice would you give to any youngster starting out?
Enjoy it. I would have got frustrated when I was younger, and on reflection that definitely didn’t help me. When I am enjoying my game I play better golf. And it shouldn’t be forgotten, nobody wants to play with someone having a meltdown. It’s an enjoyable game most of the time, so I always say to myself to go out and enjoy it.
Is that the advice you were given?
Yes, from the moment I started to play. I got plenty of coaching with Leinster U18s, and then with my own individual coaches over the years. When I look back now the main thing I took from it was to enjoy it. Nearly every coach will tell you that before the course ends.
Do you take an interest in any other sports?
I enjoy watching rugby and football. I just wasn’t great at other sports and probably for that reason I didn’t concentrate a lot on them. I have more of an interest in rugby now. I would generally watch every Irish match and then go to the odd game. My father loves watching rugby, and we would sit together and watch the matches, even though neither of us played it. My girlfriend’s family have a big interest in rugby, and I suppose I’d be in trouble if I didn’t take an interest.
I enjoy listening to music, but wouldn’t say I’m the biggest lover of it. A mixture of modern day music along with the Wolfe Tones and Billy Joel, who my father often has blaring from Alexa in the morning, would do for me.
What about TV?
I haven’t the best attention span, so TV shows running for longer than 30 or 40 minutes would be a struggle for me. I don’t mind sitting in the evenings watching a film, but most times I would instead rather be out on a pitching green, or on the course.
Aside from the Democrat?
Reading wouldn’t be a big thing for me. I would look at the local ’papers, but that would be the height of it.
The choice is yours – the British Open or the Augusta Masters?
I would have to go with the Open. To be called out as the champion would be nice.
Can you sing a song?
Absolutely not; but after a few drinks I might think I can. I enjoy sitting around when there’s a sing-song.
The Claret Jug is the centrepiece – who do you want sitting around the table with you at the celebration dinner?
Family, mainly. They have made a lot of sacrifices and have done a lot for me, bringing me to where I am today. Having the Claret Jug on the table in the company of my father, mother Carol Ann, sister Sadhbh and Hayley would make for a very special celebration. After the dinner I’d have all my friends over and I’m sure the craic would be something else.