Thursday 27 October 2016

How Ronan Rafferty paved way for Irish glory at US Open

25 years of highs and lows since Ulsterman broke the mould

Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30

Graeme McDowell holds the US Open trophy in 2010
Graeme McDowell holds the US Open trophy in 2010

June 1990 and there's only one story in Ireland, or about Ireland, in local and international media: the historic World Cup debut of the Republic's Soccer team.

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The country was transfixed for three glorious weeks as football fever swept the land.

Italia 90 ruled the airwaves and the print media and was the dominant topic of conversation, even among those who up to then neither knew nor cared about soccer.

Deserted streets on match nights; pubs and community halls packed to the rafters with men, women and children cheering on Jack Charlton's team from afar.

But the World Cup went on. It was all the news, all the time, it seemed.

Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, thousands of miles away from the island of Ireland, another little piece of sporting history was unfolding.

Ronan Rafferty, European Tour winner of the Order of Merit in 1989, had received an invitation to play in the 1990 US Open, which, for Irish golf, had remained virtually the 'forgotten Major' for decades.

Indeed, pretty much all of the Majors in the USA were off limits to Irish professionals for many years, as much for the difficulty in getting into them as the long-distance travel and unfamiliar courses.

Rafferty, a member of the Ryder Cup team which halved the '89 match at the Belfry, thereby retaining the Cup, was a hot property at the time.

His presence at the Masters - he finished 12th - and the US Open at Medinah in 1990 was a turning point for Irish golf; no Irish pro had played in the tournament since the War.

The European Tour was on the rise through the '80s, thanks in part to the Ryder Cup successes, and the emergence of a group of hugely talented golfers headed by Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo.

Rafferty was not far behind them in raw talent, although his performances at the US Open did not reflect that.

His competition debut resulted in a 63rd-place finish.

The next year, at Hazeltine, Rafferty left the course after 27 holes when he was 11 over par and flew home that evening. He was fined by the European Tour for his withdrawal.

Rafferty went back again in '92 at Pebble Beach, but missed the cut, and that was the end of his Stateside experience in the Majors.

However, a new generation was coming along in the early '90s, spearheaded by Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley.

A few years later, Padraig Harrington turned professional.

Later on Graeme McDowell arrived, and in the last five years, the phenomenon that is Rory McIlroy has stamped his authority all over the game of golf.

Harrington set the tone, not only by his two Open Championship victories, but also by winning the US PGA in Oakland Hills.

An Irishman winning a Major - brilliant. A dream come true.

An Irishman winning two and then three Majors - amazing. But an Irishman taking home a Major from America raised the bar to a new level.

Enter stage left, McDowell in 2010.Pebble Beach, US Open, all the big names in action, but there he was, leader after two rounds; he was three shots behind Dustin Johnson going into round four and the rest is history.

A year later at Congressional, McIlroy, then 22, was the next US Open champion, setting a new low-72 hole record of 268 (16 under par) to spark more Irish celebrations.

This week, McIlroy and McDowell have extra focus on them as they are past champions, but no matter what happens at Chambers Bay, their past success in the tournament has already elevated the standing of the Irish in this tournament.

It remains very democratic in structure, with qualification open to any player who can gut it out through the various stages of the qualifying process.

Kevin Phelan, an amateur in 2010 and now a professional, played at Pebble Beach the year McDowell became champion.

Former amateur Chris Devlin moved to the States and played secondary Tours before his memorable qualification for 2008 at Torrey Pines

The following profiles highlight the record of notable Irish competitors in the US Open since 1990:

Rory McIlroy

US Open debut: 2009

Played: 6 Best finish: Winner 2011

Last year: Tied 23. Missed cut: 2

Awesome display at Congressional in 2011. Bounced back from his Masters misery that April to win by eight shots and claim the first of four Majors at the tender age of 22 years and 46 days.

Graeme McDowell

US Open debut: 2005

Played: 9 Best finish: Winner 2010 (also tied 2nd, 2012)

Last year: Tied 28th. Missed cut: 1

Broke the mould for Irish golfers in the US Open with a marvellous gritty performance for victory in Pebble Beach in 2010.


Padraig Harrington

US Open debut: 1997

Played: 16 Best finish: Tied 4th 2012

Last year: Did not play. Missed cut: 4

Three top-five finishes are Harrington's best in the US Open to date, but plundered the US PGA in 2008 for a super Major win on American soil.

Darren Clarke

US Open debut: 1994

Played: 16 Best finish: Tied 10 1999

Last year: Missed cut (5th time)

Clarke has got very little joy from the Majors in America but on this side of the Atlantic he got the one he most wanted - the British Open, which he won in fine style at Royal St George's in 2011.

Paul McGinley

US Open debut: 1997

Played: 4 Best finish: Tied 42 (2005)

Last year: Did not play. Missed cut: 3

Did his best work on the European Tour, winning five times, and gave his career a new dimension as winning Ryder Cup captain last year.

Shane Lowry

US Open debut: 2011

Played: 2 Missed cut: 2

Lowry goes to Chambers Bay hoping for third time lucky after missing out on weekend play in 2011 and 2014. He is gaining in experience all the time and every Major appearance is a developmental opportunity.

Ronan Rafferty

US Open debut: 1990

Played: 3 Best finish: 63

Last year: n/a. Missed cut: 2 (including WD rnd 2 1991)

Rafferty was the first Irish professional of the post-War era to play in the US Open. In 1991, he made an early exit after nine holes of the second round at Hazeltine when he was 11 over par. He was subsequently fined by the European Tour for the withdrawal.

David Feherty

US Open debut: 1992

Played: 1 Missed cut: 1

Best known now as a quirky and witty on-course commentator with American television, Feherty had a decent pro career, winning five European Tour titles. Made his only US Open appearance in 1992 at Pebble Beach.

Kevin Phelan

US Open debut: 2010

Played: 2 (Am). Best finish: Tied 62

Last year: Did not play. Missed cut: 1

Phelan, who hails from Waterford but moved to Florida when he was young, is now a Tour player, but has played twice in the US Open (2010, '13) as an amateur.

Chris Devlin

US Open debut: 2008

Played: 1 Missed cut: 1

Hooters Tour pro Devlin battled his way through qualifying to reach the Open proper. Ironically, he was the only Northern Ireland competitor at Torrey Pines that year because the big names, McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke all failed to qualify.

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