Dundalk international Caolan Rafferty captured his maiden championship title by beating Ireland teammate Rowan Lester at the second extra hole in a dramatic finale to the Pierse Motors sponsored South of Ireland at Lahinch.
Lester, appearing in his second final, had a two-hole lead after five but Rafferty drew level at the 12th and with the final all square through 18 holes, the players headed back down the first. Rafferty eventually emerged as champion by birdieing the second, the 20th hole of an extraordinary final.
“To win my first championship the way I did it kind of showed a good bit of heart,” said Rafferty. “I wanted to win and it’s well overdue.”
The 25-year-old from Dundalk has established himself among Ireland’s best in recent seasons but a major title has eluded him and his progress to the South of Ireland finale marked his first appearance in a championship decider.
“I’ve got the monkey off my back, as my father said to me straight away, and he’s dead right,” said Rafferty following an emotional victory.
His path to the final had been relatively straightforward and he cruised through the penultimate round with a 5&4 win against leading qualifier Mark Power from Kilkenny.
Squaring off against Rowan Lester in the final, Rafferty found himself trailing as early as the second hole when Lester made birdie. A bogey for Rafferty at the par-3 fifth doubled Lester’s advantage and it was only at the ninth that Rafferty finally won a hole.
One behind at the turn, Rafferty turned the tables by winning 12 and 13 but his lead did not last long. He bogeyed 15 to bring Lester back level and another bogey at 17 left him needing a win at the last to keep the match alive.
From 209 yards, Rafferty produced one of the most important shots of his career, and he two-putted for birdie to put the squeeze on Lester, who failed to convert a short putt for victory.
“18 was massive,” Rafferty reflected. “I hit two really good shots to make him have to hole a putt, which is all I could really ask of him.”
It was a cruel blow for Lester but he had to quickly compose himself as the final headed back down the first. This time Rafferty missed a chance to seal victory.
“When I had the chance, 19 slipped by on the edge, I couldn’t believe it,” Rafferty confessed. “I said, ‘Is this another week of it?'”
However strong those emotional currents, Rafferty kept calm amid the chaos and delivered the telling blow — a birdie at the second extra hole.
“When his [Lester} putt slipped by I said: ‘Just grab it now because I’m not letting this go on any longer.'”
Good as his word, Rafferty rolled home the winning putt to clinch the South. “It was an absolutely class match,” said the new champion. “It’s a long week to come to a final. To put on the display we put on, I hope the crowd were happy with it because it’s not easy to do. I think we’re both pretty tired.”
With Dundalk clubmate, Eoin Murphy, on the bag Rafferty showed his mettle during those championship moments at the 18th and 20th. His undisputed talent was matched by a fierce resilience.
“To be two down against Rowan, I was thinking right: ‘Where am I going to get these holes back?’ I just dug deep and played really good golf on the way in. I gave myself chances and that’s all you can do around here,” said Rafferty, who will now turn his attentions to the AIG Irish Amateur Close (4-8 August).
Rafferty’s victory at the South earns him significant points in the Bridgestone Order of Merit, which concludes following next month’s Close at at The European Club
Video courtesy of GUI