Rafferty helps Walker Cup squad

By Brian Keogh

Ronan Rafferty is taming the tigers.

At 43, the former European No 1 buzzes around his favourite course in the entire world with the enthusiasm of a teenager.

As 20 of Great Britain and Ireland's top players tiptoe their way around the Newcastle links, Rafferty puts a hand on a young shoulder here and speaks a word of encouragement there.

He points, he gesticulates, he explains. They nod. They know who he is and what he has achieved in the game.

He might have gained a few pounds since he thrashed Rory McIlroy's current coach Michael Bannon 8 and 7 in the final of the 1980 Irish Close on this hallowed turf.

But Raffery's still the cool, calculating and confident course management fox that made him the youngest ever Walker Cup player as a 17 year old in 1981 and he still loves Royal County Down.

He knows every hump and hollow on the course recently voted the best in the world outside the US by Golf Digest magazine.

But he also knows that the most talented young players in golf need a helping hand if their prayers are to be answered in one of the great cathedrals of golf when the Walker Cup hits town from September 8-9.

Standing in the middle of the 15th fairway, the popular TV pundit keeps an eye out for a booming drive and explains just why he has given up three days of his time to help his former Walker Cup team mate Colin Dalgleish.

The Great Britain and Ireland skipper has called in the former Warrenpoint wonderkid to show the kids the secrets of Royal County Down and Rafferty is loving every minute.

Basking in the spring sunshine, he said: "We walked the course on Tuesday night and the conversation with the guys went along the lines: 'Great hole, great hole, tough hole, great hole. When are the easy ones coming?'

"And I said, 'Well, you've just seen the easiest nine.' There are no weak holes on the golf course. It is great shot after great shot, great view after great view and I still come here and think, yes, this is it.

"It is one of the golf courses that you want to go out and play again and it is the same every time. It is a real grind to have to leave."

No wonder, Rafferty says, that Tiger Woods came back to play the course a second time on one of his pre-Open Championship forays to Ireland.

He explained: "Royal County Down is one of those courses that you need to see a few times to appreciate it before you actually go and play.

"Experience helps you get one shot lower than the next guy over the course of a tournament. That's the difference between being on the top of that leaderboard and being in the middle of the pack."

Rafferty was always ahead of his time when it came to plotting his way around a course, according to Baltray's Mark Gannon, a Walker Cup selector.

And while he has nothing but respect for the new kids on the block, Rafferty knows they need help to play a course that requires more than the 'blast it - wedge it' style that works so well on trifle-soft modern courses.

So what's missing? What do the best young players in Britain and Ireland need to learn to win back the Walker Cup later this year?

Rafferty took just a split second to reply.

He flashed: "Shotmaking. They know how to hit it. They just don't know how to work it. These days, golf courses are softer and everybody is talking about spin. Nobody is talking about ball control or trajectory.

"All they have to do is listen to the world No 1 and find out why he's the best. Because that is all he ever works on. Ball control and trajectory, that is all Tiger ever talks about.

"Everyone has their own different view of how they hit a shot and I am not trying to push my view on it. I am just trying to give them options and show them that there are three ways, four ways, five ways to get the ball near the hole here. I am also trying to make it easy for them. You have got to work with the land.

"It is okay when you have got soft greens and you are spinning the ball back to the hole. But this is a completely different style of golf.

"You never want to see the guys from 100 yards with a sand wedge on a links course trying to spin a ball in because it just doesn't happen.

"He has got to use the contours, he has got to use the flow of the land to his advantage. Because if he is trying to stand there and fly in shots to these greens he is going to get into trouble. On any links golf course you are going to get in trouble, never mind here.

"There is an art to links and these guys are going to get the biggest shock of their life when it gets windy.

"I found myself telling the guys to hit it safe to the middle of the green here, safe to the middle of the green there, and you can see that the kids today play a different style of game.

"They play aggressive and you can't be aggressive round here. So it is a matter of taking somebody from that kind of game and bringing them back and showing them you can get the ball close to the hole with a little punched seven iron from 120 yards rather than a nine iron or a wedge.

"And so that is why I say it is a negative golf course. There is lots of pull back and play safe. I found myself saying things like, never hit it past the centre of the green.

"There are runways in from 20 yards and 30 yards short of most greens here. Now if you are standing 140 yards away from a pin that is dangling the carrot right there in front of you and you have a nine iron it is very difficult to say, let's chip it 100 yards and run it up there.

"With no disrespect at all to the players, they are all very talented, but it is not their style. This is not their style of golf course and they have got to adapt to it. This doesn't compromise, they have to."

Rafferty often walked courses rather than play a practice round.

He explained: "You know, 25 years ago I didn't play practice rounds, I walked around. I was getting pictures of courses. I was getting them to send me course planners and score cards and by the time I got there I had a half an idea of what to expect.

"I went to the library and looked at photographs, especially of the famous courses. I knew what the fourth hole and the ninth hole here looked like when I was 12 years old, years before I even got to play the course.

"It was the same with Cypress Point, where I played my Walker Cup. Cypress Point is famous, there are more pictures of Cypress Point that you can shake a stick at."

Rafferty has only seen McIlroy hit a few shots and while he immediately recognises that this is a special talent, he believe the Holywood star needs to reel in his natural aggression.

The youngster does that in an afternoon 68, the best round of the day and his first ever sub-par score on the course he has been playing since he was a a pre-teen.

Rafferty sees nothing wrong with power and McIlroy, he admits, will have a major advantage at Royal County Down.

He said: "He is a very strong player but what is refreshing is that he is confident. He is a sparky fella and you can see it. He is hitting driver everywhere and asking, why is he hitting an iron? Why is he hitting a three wood?

"The thing about it is, if you are confident about what you do you are naturally cocky anyway. In matchplay you can command a game. He knows he has the ability to pop it out an extra 20 yards on a par five.

"There is not a hole he can't get in two. He is obviously long off the tee which means he can shorten a golf course by quite a bit. Now if you are standing there hitting eight iron in when your opponent is hitting six iron or five iron, and I don't care how straight he is, you will get it closer more often over 18 holes of matchplay.

"Rory's very sure of himself. That's good. People say you are cocky but you're not. If you know what you are doing, you feel confident in yourself and that breeds more and more confidence."

And with that he bounded off down the fairway to impart a few more words of advice, hammering another nail in America's Walker Cup coffin.