Gareth Raflewski leaving his mark at home with academy in Slieve Russell

Ronan MacNamara
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Gareth Raflewski & Gordon Smyth at the Raflewski Golf Academy at PGA National Slieve Russell (Image: Irish Golfer)

Gareth Raflewski has quickly established himself as one of the top short game coaches in the world of golf having coached four world number one golfers on the LPGA Tour including Lydia Ko.

Having left Ireland to forge a career in golf across the Atlantic, the Omagh native is looking to leave a legacy at home with the Raflewski Golf Europe Academy at PGA National Slieve Russell where Head PGA Professional Gordon Smyth rules the roost.

“I’ve always wanted to expand. I had looked at places like Toronto, but I thought I’m from Ireland, that’s where my roots are, where I’ve grown up, that’s where I want to be,” Raflewski explains. “If I want to come home after I retire that’s what would draw me to this place, so I was selfishly thinking about doing something impactful in Ireland and bringing attention to the short game and I get to come back more often!

“I’ll be on tour and sending videos through of the players and getting Gordon’s view on it so we’re on the same wavelength. We’re not teaching the student we are working with thestudent.  We plan Gordon will be out on the PGA/LPGA Tour more in 2023 and bringing that knowledge back to Europe and his players.

“If you’re looking at Instagram and you’re trying to make changes to fit into the Instagram model, you are doing a disservice to the player. We dig a lot deeper, find out your background, habits, tendencies and give you the knowledge to get better.

“We are a short game facility, but we are in the business of performance whether that be winning on tour or getting a 20 handicapper to shoot 79 for the first time.”

Raflewski studied engineering in Liverpool and became quite successful in the field. However, he always had the bug for golf, and he eventually came to his sliding doors moment where he felt he had to take a sabbatical and try and make it as a professional golfer.

Not from a golfing family, Raflewski’s grandfather was a Polish man who flew for the RAF in World War II, and it is rumoured he escaped to Ireland with his grandmother and made up the last name to stay safe.

Raflewski’s parents weren’t sold on the idea of their son heading to Canada to play golf for a living, but he was determined to take the risk and see what would happen. ‘He who dares wins’ is the old saying.

“After I finished university, I headed off to Canada. I had the bug to play so when I was 18 I told my parents I wanted to go to Q-School and my parents said, ‘no get a degree.’ They weren’t golfers so they had no idea what I was on about thinking I was mad to try and play golf.

“I was doing really well at engineering and progressing in my company to a point where I was thinking if I don’t get out now I’ll never get out so I took a sabbatical. They called me up after a year and asked was I coming back and I said no.

“Another year later they called me again and I said no again. I had the bug to play. It wasn’t so much that I knew I was going to make it, it was just that I couldn’t not go and try and make it. It was really important for me.

“In all the mistakes I made it was probably the most valuable thing I did for my coaching.”

After a career on tour didn’t materialise bouncing around the mini tours like the EuroPro Tour, the then Nationwide Tour and further afield on the Canadian Tour, Raflewski had settled in London, Ontario in Canada and decided to dip his toes into the coaching world.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you go through it. When players come to me asking should they do something I know they shouldn’t do this or that and they’re like ‘why?’ So I have the experience to tell them that I did this, or someone did that and they weren’t successful.

“So here is what one player did and it worked for them.

“Instead of reading a load of books, find someone who knows way more than you and pay them whatever they want to be paid for the day and get all the information out of them. That’s one of the things I’ve learned.

“If I want information and know someone who has it I’ll just fly to them and spend the day with them. If I can get 20 or 30 years out of someone in one visit, it’s well worth it.”

When Raflewski entered the teaching ranks, Canada boasted an illustrious yet intimidating list of coaches including Sean Foley who is certainly cream of the crop when it comes to the long game.

The Tyrone man also had to overcome the hurdle that membership in Ontario was teetering towards retirement age and in order to get his coaching career off the ground he would have to reinvent himself to garner the interest of the golfers.

Within two years, he had up to 1200 golfers coming to him in the summer for short game lessons. He soon became the top short game coach in the region, teaching for ten hours every day with people up to the age of 80 coming for lessons.

“When you get to a certain age you don’t have the same flexibility or the co-ordination so you can’t ask people to hit it further. But we can putt it better, chip it better, wedge it better. That made me think I should be spending more time on short game.

“I looked around at all the other coaches and they were all swing coaches and I said if you’re going to stand out and be good I would do short game.

“I stopped studying the full swing, I didn’t want to know and I just read every book about the short game, went to every seminar did it all.

“Foley was just down the road in Oakville. He was a great swing coach but nobody was doing short game, this is an important part of the game.”

Raflewski’s reputation soon spread into the professional game and currently coaches PGA Tour male players like Nick Taylor and Kiradech Aphibarnrat but he is best known for being the short game guru behind 85 LPGA Tour players including the Jutanugarn sisters, Lydia Ko and Jin Young Ko.

“The LPGA had an event coming to a neighbouring club and one of the pros tweeted that they couldn’t putt or something. I had been working with EuroPro or Challenge Tour players at the time and someone got in touch with her to say if she was in London she should come see me.

“I worked with a ton of local pros and then Jane Park who was a US Open champion. In the next year she doubled her money on tour, so her friend Tiffany Joh did well and doubled her money on tour. Then I picked up Moriya Jutanugarn, Ariya her sister in January 2016. Ariya was 66th in the world. By July she was world number one.

“From there I started with Lydia Ko and a number of other great players. I’ve worked with 85 LPGA Tour players over that span.

“If players get better, you will be busy. If they keep getting better, then you will be very busy! I was fortunate enough to be in a position where not many people were talking about chipping, short game and performance so this was filling a void in the ladies game.

“Word of mouth is huge. On the LPGA I’m so well established and it’s easy and comfortable, yet the general public wouldn’t have a clue that this is what I do.”

That success Stateside has transferred to Irish shores at PGA National Slieve Russell with Smyth and Raflewski (via videolink) have mentored Irish golfers from tour professionals, elite amateurs to club golfers.

Professionals such as Stuart Grehan, Niall Kearney and Liam Grehan are regular visitors to the academy as is elite amateur Rob Moran, but the star student is 19-year-old Tom McKibbin who recently became the first Irish teen to crack the OWGR top-300 since Rory McIlroy did it at 18 years of age.

Opened in 2020 during the COVID pandemic, it would be understandable if the facility had yet to get off the ground, but Raflewski has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly the academy in Slieve Russell has attracted such high-quality clientele.

“The thousands of lessons I have taught have put me further down the rabbit hole of the short game. I’ve gone and made mistakes as I was learning and that’s why we have had a lot of success with the academy and why Gordon has had so much success in a short space of time.

“It’s great. Tom has been a great fella to have over the last couple of years. I’ve only attracted Tom because of Gordon and Slieve Russell here. I was out in Canada doing my own thing on Tour so this Irish community wouldn’t know me and I really wanted to do something over in this part of the world.

“What is surprising is that it usually takes time to attract quality players but we have done it very quickly and the interesting thing is they are coming back.

“The proof is in the pudding, if someone goes once that’s fine but if they come back you’re doing something right.”

Raflewski’s approach is about nurturing the natural talent and abilities of the golfer and giving them the tools to work and discover what works for them rather than forcing his ideas.

Lessons are more in-depth than your average 30-minute session which allows the client to get comfortable and prompts them to ask questions.

“Every single motion you make is perfect. You know, you need time to digest. And the problem when people come up for lessons is you’re super intimidated. You feel nervous and it takes a long time for you to get up the courage to start asking the right questions.

“If you’re in for a 30-minute lesson, you’re in and out before you’re actually settled, you know, so we’re minimum here 90 minutes. We want you to come in, warm up, get settled, then we’ll start and then you know, 45 minutes into the session, you start to notice people starting to open up and starting to ask a few questions. And after an hour, they’re starting to feel comfortable with you. They’re like, I’d like to work with a bit more on that there and can you tell me a bit more with that?

“A 20-handicapper is going to probably hit three greens in regulation which means they are chipping fifteen times, so out of fifteen short game shots they’re probably not getting it onto the green three or four times a round they are double chipping or bunkering.

“If we can get them onto the green they can go from 20 to a 15 or 16 handicap. Take it a little step further and take their proximity from 20 feet to ten which reduces three putts. Then they are into the 12 or 13 handicap. Bring that proximity closer and you’re single digits in quick time. Their confidence goes up around the greens and they go for a pin.”

Despite having his fingerprints dotted around the top of women’s golf, Raflewski & Smyth have designs on helping more PGA and DP World Tour pros wedge and putt their way to the top of the world of golf while also helping the regular club golfer in Ireland at PGA National Slieve Russell.

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