Major success for Rafferty as he lands prize in Lahinch
Dundalk Golf Club's Caolan Rafferty won his first golfing major on Sunday when he captured the South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch.
The 25-year-old produced a magnificent birdie on the 20th hole to beat fellow Ireland international Rowan Lester of Hermitage and become only the second Dundalk player to win one of Irish amateur golf's major championships, bridging a 69 year gap to Mick Ferguson's victory in the East of Ireland in 1949.
Having found a fairway bunker off the tee he could only chip out onto the fairway and faced a 209 yard shot into the wind for his third shot with his opponent in prime position to win the hole.
He hit a four iron to 15 feet and when Lester missed his birdie putt from 20ft, Rafferty stepped up and rolled in the winning putt.
'That was the best four iron I ever it,' he recalled. 'I got a great line on it and I really fancied the putt. It was a nice feeling when it went in because I have been waiting a long time to win a championship.'
His father Ciaran and uncle David, who have been major influences on his golfing career since he held his first club, watched with pride as he accepted the famous trophy.
'It was great that they were there along with my girlfriend Hayley and some of the members from Dundalk because they've been there every step of the way and it was nice to see how proud they were,' said Rafferty afterwards who was also full of praise for clubmate Eoin Murphy, his caddy on the final day.
'It hasn't really sunk in yet but it is a great feeling. I've been trying to win one of these for some time and they are not easy to win so I am going to enjoy the moment.'
Rafferty headed south to Co Clare days after helping Dundalk to its first ever senior pennant and admitted that being in the team environment with his senor panel clubmates for a few days at the Barton Shield in Mount Wolseley was just the tonic he needed.
'Things hadn't been going to well for me before then but I really enjoyed being around all the lads on the senior panel and winning something with the club. I went to Lahinch feeling very relaxed and back enjoying my golf.'
Rafferty shot a six under par 66 in the first round of qualifying last Wednesday in a round that included one eagle and seven birdies. He shot 73 in the second qualifying round on Thursday but it didn't count after the second round was abandoned because of the heavy rain that made the course unplayable.
On Friday morning he was the last of the 64 qualifiers for the matchplay stage to tee it up and opened up with a 6&4 win over Niall Hearns of Mountrath before beating Eanna Griffin of Waterford 4&3 in Round 2.
On Saturday in the last 16 he met Ross Dutton of Tandragee and beat him 2&1 which was same scoreline by which he saw off the challenge of Rosslare's Paul Murphy in the quarter-final.
That earned him a Sunday morning semi-final against Mark Power from Kilkenny who is also a member of Lahinch and has been Irish Boys champion for the past two years.
Rafferty won the second hole and never looked back after that. He was four up after five holes and although Power hit back to win the next two holes, Rafferty responded by winning eight and nine. Power came back at him again, winning 11, but Rafferty won 13 and 14 to close out the match, winning 5&4.
Lester, who was runner-up in the 2016 South, started as favourite and quickly opened up a two hole lead by winning the second and fifth as Rafferty found himself trailing in a match for the first time all week.
'I didn't panic. I knew I just had to be patient and keep plugging away because there was still a long way to go,' said Rafferty who pulled a hole back by winning the eighth and got it back to all square when he pitched to five feet and made birdie after Lester had missed from 20ft.
He then went one ahead by winning the 13th but lost the 15th to a par and then went one behind with one to play when he conceded 17 after missing a putt for a five.
'Standing on the 18th tee I was thinking I could win 18 and force it down 19 and I hit two great shots, the drive and then a three wood into the heart of the green. I had about 280 to the flag but the three wood ran up the green to 30 feet.'
Lester could only lay-up but hit a great wedge into five feet from 100 yards and when Rafferty burned the hole with his eagle putt, Lester had a birdie putt for the half and the championship.
'I actually had my hat off ready to congratulate him but he missed, so I put the hat back on and headed for the 19th tee saying to myself 'he has given me a chance so let's get the job done'.'
On the 19th Rafferty was 12 feet from the pin and when Lester's putt from 15 feet came up short by two feet he thought he had his chance but could only watch in disbelief as his putt caught the hole but didn't drop.
Then came the 20th and that dramatic passage of play which eventually saw Rafferty get the job done and great crowned the champion of the South.
'I hit a poor drive and ended up in a bunker while he was down the left but shorter than me. He hit his approach wide and short right and left himself with a tricky pitch so I was determined to get no worse than a five and make him get birdie to win it.
'I chipped out of the bunker, left myself with 209 to the flag, and hit the best four iron ever to 15 feet. He left his pitch 20 feet short and hit his putt six feet past. I knew this was my chance and I rolled it in the front door.'
Rafferty joins an impressive list of previous winners of the South which has been played since 1895 on the famous Lahinch links and joins the likes of JB Carr, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Graeme McDowell on the competition's roll of honour.
Rafferty returned home to a hero's welcome on Sunday night at Dundalk Golf Club and Club Captain Gerry Byrne led the congratulations. He said: 'On behalf of all the members of Dundalk Golf Club I want to congratulate Caolan on this magnificent achievement. He is the first Dundalk member to win the South of Ireland Championship and only the second to win any of Irish golf's major amateur championships.
'He has worked extremely hard over the years and has finally earned his reward. He is also a tremendous role model for all the young players in the club and this win shows them what is possible.'