16 June 2002

Faldo and Montgomerie might have furrowed brows but the former teenage prodigy is enjoying life these days and playing on the courses he wants to

Should there not be sadness in decline? Ronan Rafferty is prepared to discuss it, but first he needs to get a bottle from the best cellar in golf.

He chooses a lip-smackingly delicious Montrachet. As we start to talk in his luxurious sitting room there is an interruption. It is a man from Volvo delivering a gleaming new car. You wonder if he will ask Ronan the famous George Best question: “Where did it all go wrong?”

In 1989, Rafferty ruled the golfing roost, beat Mark Calcavecchia in the Ryder Cup and closed out his season with that famous victory over Nick Faldo in the Volvo Masters. It clinched him first place in the European Order of Merit, with Jose Maria Olazabal second and Colin Montgomerie a worthy 25th.This weekend, the other three are back battling with the world’s best at the US Open. Rafferty, without a win since the 1993 Austrian Open and now ranked 243rd, is on a corporate trip in Scotland. Looks like he has bottled it.

He hit our consciousness as the young prodigy from Northern Ireland who won the British Boys Championship at just 15, played in the Eisenhower Trophy at 16, and took Walker Cup honours at 17. Rafferty is still only 38, a year younger than Montgomerie, a full seven than Faldo, and as he posted an impressive 68 on the first day of the PGA Trophy at Wentworth, you could see the years roll back.

Ronan says: “There was just a flicker; I could remember how it used to feel. I shot 72 in the second round, but then a 79 and I was back to playing like I have before. I have only made three cuts in three years. In the 2½ years that I was away (fused bones in his left hand needed a full operation) everyone became younger and technology changed. It left me stranded but I am not going to sit around moping about it. I feel very strongly that everyone has their time, some just go quicker than others.”

There is not a hint of ruefulness in the smile. “When I was 15 I came in at lunch-time and sat next to the great Joe Carr. I was moaning and whingeing at how unlucky I had been and what had gone wrong. After a bit of this, Joe gave me 10p and said, `Go and phone someone who cares.’ That was a big lesson which I have always remembered.”

“No one should be bothered about my problems. It is up to me to live my life. Everything should be a progression. When I flew up to Newcastle to play in the British Boys Championship it was the most exciting thing I have ever done. Now I have flown to Hong Kong for the day just to play golf.”

Looking out of the window at the other millionaires’ houses in this exclusive cul-de-sac just north of Ascot racecourse was to imagine that the financial progress has been pretty impressive for the domestic science teacher’s son from Warrenpoint. On the wall is a picture of wife Claire, with 13-year-old Jonathan and Emma, 11. You think of other sportsmen getting nervy and difficult as their powers erode and their resources dwindle. Golf handled well is the game to be in.

“Everyone wants to play golf and to talk about it,” explains Ronan, “particularly other sportsmen. I don’t want to drive a Formula One car, but Michael Schumacher wants to know how to chip over a bunker. Boris Becker is mad for it, wants to play every day. Businessmen are always trying to improve their game which is why the corporate scene is so good.”

There should be something irritatingly smug about this semi-retired hero taking another sip of the Montrachet and contemplating his good fortune while his peer group face the rigours of competition across the Atlantic. But such a wattage of vitality beams from Rafferty’s balding head and silver sideburns that it is impossible not to warm to the enthusiasm he generates.

The wine is anything but a dipso’s dalliance. “I had 2½ months staying with Ian Baker-Finch and his family in Queensland in 1987,” he says, “Two-and-a-half months tasting some of Australia’s finest. When I came back I started to collect. Every time I am on a plane I am studying it. I don’t actually drink that much but I certainly taste a lot.”

But it is golf that remains the obsession. “I just love to play golf,” he says, “many of my fellow pros hate to play apart from tournaments. But I am THE golfing anorak. I am on the voting panel to choose the best 100 courses in Britain and I want to see them all. But best of all are the links courses. We have identified 235 links courses and so far I have been to 190 of them.”

With a connoisseur’s delight he gets Donald Steel’s book Classic Golf Links and waxes lyrical about their advantages compared to the “modern monstrosities” being laid out at untold expense inland. “If these new courses were so good, why are we still playing Birkdale, Troon and why is Royal County Down the most exciting golf course you will ever play?” he asks.

There is a gleam in the eye as he gets out another set of pictures. “Look at this,” he says, showing a glorious stretch of windblown turf in the Shetlands, “no pro has ever been to Whalsay. It is the most northern course in the British Isles. There are a thousand people on the island and 250 of them play golf. To stand there is absolutely stunning.”

This weekend’s Scottish trip is only as far as Wick, 20 miles south of John O’Groats. But as golfing experiences go it is about as far from the normal play-and-lunch corporate people as you can get. Rafferty and his team are staying for three nights at a private castle complete with bagpipes, super chef and, of course, fine wines and the climax to their golfing odyssey is a round at midnight under the almost daylight midsummer moon.

There is an element of business about the trip but come Wednesday it is the pure pleasure that is out. “I have a friend with a small plane,” enthuses Ronan. “We are flying back up to Portpatrick by Stranraer. We are playing there and staying in a lovely old country hotel overlooking the bay with fine food and a great wine list. On Thursday we are flying over to Isla to play Macree and then down over the Isle of Man to play this beautiful little course in the middle of the Welsh coast.”

“It is what ever floats your boat,” he concludes as images of Faldo and Montgomerie’s furrowed brows recede into the distance. “For me to stand on the tee at Macree, to sniff the air, to see the sea, to watch the weather changing, that is as good as it gets.”

No, not too much sadness in this decline.

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