By Brian Keogh
Don’t be surprised if Nick Faldo asks Ronan Rafferty to assist him when Europe bids for a fourth consecutive Ryder Cup victory at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky next year.
The Warrenpoint man is cunning. As cunning, as Edmund Blackadder once remarked to his manservant Baldrick, as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.
Watching Rafferty shepherd 20 members of the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup squad around Royal County Down recently was not unlike watching a great surgeon expertly dissect a cadaver for a group of raffish medical students who’d had a particularly hard night on the town.
The evening before the squad played the great Newcastle links for the first time, Rafferty told them to grab a chipping club and join him for a reconnaissance trip around a course that was designed long before the advent of the bulldozer.
To Rafferty’s chagrin, not one of them took an eight or a nine-iron and the following day he found himself pulling putters out of pencil bags before their owners ever got the chance to reach for the lobber.
In an era when the “bash it, wedge it” approach is often enough to tear most modern courses apart, the subtleties of Royal County Down are so intricate that skipper Colin Dalgleish’s decision to get Rafferty to give his boys a 48-hour master-class may yet prove to be the most inspired decision of his captaincy.
The man, after all, had always been ahead of his time and while the vast majority of the squad members had never seen him hit a shot, their respect for the 1989 European number one was obvious.
“He was amazing,” recalled County Louth’s Mark Gannon, now a Walker Cup selector. “He always had a old head on young shoulders and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young player with the same gift for course management as Rafferty.”
If there is a player alive who knows how to play Royal County Down in matchplay and win, it has to be Rafferty. In 1980, the then 16-year-old Newry boy thrashed McIlroy’s current coach Michael Bannon 8 and 7 in the final and still had time to make it to Portmarnock by five o’clock that afternoon to play a practice round for the Carroll’s Irish Open.
The following year he became the youngest Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup player since Jimmy Bruen when he made his debut at Cypress Point at the tender age of 17 years and seven months.
An indication of Rafferty’s eye for detail came as we walked the tough 15th hole at Royal County Down and he recalled that Walker Cup debut and GB&I’s subsequent 15-9 defeat to an American side that featured names like Sutton, Pavin, Mudd, Sigel, Walton, Way and one Colin Dalgleish.
“You know, 25 years ago I didn't play practice rounds, I walked around,” Rafferty says, keeping one eye open for another missile from the tee. “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. When I was 12 years old, years before I even got to play the course, I knew the fourth hole here looked like and the ninth hole here looked like. It was the same with Cypress Point, where I played my Walker Cup.”
Rafferty does not believe that it is possible to compare his era with what he describes as the current “semi-pro” generation. It’s like trying to compare Hogan with Nicklaus, he says, or Nicklaus with Tiger Woods. It’s apples and oranges.
Yet he can see what’s lacking in the new generation of golfing stars on this side of the pond.
“Shot-making,” he flashes. “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.”
Royal County Down is a cathedral to the 140-yard chip-and-run. The clever punch, rather than the soaring wedge. “This doesn't compromise,” Rafferty says, “they have to. They will take a shot on ten times knowing that eight times they will be dead. But just one or two times it will go close and that is the bit of glory that they are looking for. Gone are the days when guys like Faldo literally plotted their way around a golf course like a chess game. I don't think they see that.”
Faldo and Rafferty. Now that really is a cunning plan.