Rafferty underlines his class with West triumph
Dundalk's Caolan Rafferty took one small step at Lahinch last summer when he won 'The South'.
Now he's taken a giant leap towards being considered one of the best amateurs in the world following his four-stroke win in the first strokeplay staging of the West of Ireland Championship.
The 26-year old began a sun-kissed Rosses Point week ranked 41st in the world, shrugging off any questions about a Walker Cup call-up as "stuff that will look after itself" if you put the scores on the board.
He'd contemplated not making the trip west at all, his mood dampened having lost a five-stroke lead in the final round of the R&A Scholars Tournament at St Andrews last Tuesday and a growing mound of Maynooth University assignments.
But given his annual brilliance in strokeplay qualifying for "the West" and his love for county Sligo, it was no surprise he triumphed in style to surge to the top of the new Bridgestone Order of Merit.
Leading by four strokes from Chelmsford's Arron Edwards-Hill after rounds of 71, 66, 67 - and by five from Portmarnock's Conor Purcell - he closed with a one-over 72 to win by four shots on eight-under 276.
"I was humming and hawing whether I should even come over or not given my college workload," said Rafferty, who saw his four-shot overnight lead reduced to just two strokes from world number 26 Purcell with five to play before closing the door.
"But I actually have a great strokeplay record from the qualifiers around here and thought, well I'm actually not too bad at stroke play around this golf course."
One of Irish golf's nearly men until he shook a monkey off his back by winning the South of Ireland title at Lahinch last year, Rafferty had to dig deep coming down the stretch yesterday.
He knew a challenge would come having seen Welshman Aled Greville shoot a 65 to his 74 over the OId Course last week to claim the R&A Scholars crown.
"Having a four-shot lead, I was joking with my father last night, 'aww, here we go again'," said a delighted Rafferty, who now looks certain to qualify for the US Amateur this summer.
A steady start was crucial and he got it by playing the first six holes in one-under par, picking up a shot at the par-five fifth to remain four ahead of the posse.
"I knew when I birdied the fifth, I was 10-under then and if I could keep it around level par the lads would have to shoot a really good score to beat me," he said.
"This golf course doesn't throw out too many birdies. We played really good golf over the last few days to get to the score we were on, and I knew if I could hold it together, I should get the job done."
He bogeyed the tough seventh and turned in level-par 36 to Purcell's 35 before the Portmarnock star chipped in for a birdie at the 10th and two-putted for another on the par-five 12th to get within two strokes.
When Rafferty bogeyed the newly toughened 14th, Purcell had a testing four-foot par putt on the same green to close within one but it slipped apologetically past the edge.
As Edwards-Hill bogeyed the 16th en route to a 72 and Purcell the 16th and 17th for a 71, Rafferty parred his last four holes to complete a memorable week and join an illustrious list of West winners.
Meanwhile, Lovisa Gunnar gave Sweden a third successive win in the Irish Girls' Open Stroke Play Championship at Roganstown, where she closed with a two-under 69 to win by three strokes from Wales' Ffion Tynan, with Elm Park's Anna Foster and Lahinch's Aine Donegan tied for sixth on six-over.