Augusta's Masters a major shock to system
Everyone who sets foot on the hallowed turf of the Augusta National during Masters week is there at the express invitation of the famous committee which runs the tournament.
It remains the most difficult of the four majors for any player just to make the field — and certainly has nothing as ungainly as a qualifying event which marks out the Open Championship and its US equivalent.
So when the envelope containing Ronan Rafferty's invitation dropped on his doormat 21 years ago, it was a special moment in the young Ulster golfer's career.
“I had just won the European Order of Merit,” he recalls, “and even today there is no place in the field automatically for the winner of that.
“Getting that invite through the post was great. You get this lovely little card, ‘You are hereby invited to play at the Masters'.
“For me at the time, it was another European going off to play a special major.”
The Warrenpoint man was part of the first coming of European golf in the 80s and 90s when Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Seve Ballesteros starting to win majors — and the famous green jackets.
Faldo was winning his third green jacket the year Rafferty played Augusta for the first time in 1990 and with rounds of 72, 74, 69 and 73, he finished in a creditable 14th.
“It was a big deal to be invited to play in the first place,” he says. “You felt part of that group of players with Woosie and Seve, another European competing for the European Tour at the majors.
“Because of the whole atmosphere, the mystique of the place and that you were competing for a green jacket, to be able to look back on your career and say you won at the Masters would have been something really special.
“There are special places to win. Everyone want to win the Open, but we all want to win it at St Andrews. For Graeme McDowell, winning the US Open is a fantastic achievement, but his is even better because he won at Pebble Beach. That's what Augusta is — it's a special place for anyone to win.”
Sadly for Rafferty the green jacket never became a reality and that 14th place was the best he managed at Augusta. He missed the cut the following year and never played another Masters. The memories of playing there, though, will last a lifetime.
“One of the things that surprises you when you first go there is the fact that even though you have seen it for years and people tell you about uphill shots, downhill shots and sidehill lies, you just don't understand,” he adds.
“The drops are huge; this is not just gentle undulation here. This is rolling hillside and very quick greens at the end of it.
“It does take you by surprise. It's such a beautiful place that you are wandering in amongst all the pines and azaleas and magnolia trees and it it like having a wonderful golf tournament going on inside an elaborate tea party.”
To mere mortals, the thought of putting on Augusta's legendary, lightning-fast greens is just terrifying — a point Rafferty made all too clearly to his brother Stephen.
“At my first Masters he was gagging for a go on the putting green. Now I knew he would four or even five-putt every one of them, so I took him out of the practice round and told him I’d play him off level from the tee if I could place his ball on the green,” he said.
“He didn't believe I could beat him, but his first putt from about 20 feet went 30 feet past the pin and off the green.”
Even for an already seasoned pro — and Rafferty |(pictured) had already played in the Ryder Cup by the time he teed it up at Augusta — there was nothing quite like his first experience of the Masters.
“There was the excitement and the nerves are jangling a little bit and I do remember taking a deep breath on the first tee and hitting a good tee-shot and hitting an eight iron into the middle of the green and two-putting thinking ‘I'm glad that's over',” he recalls.
“And on we went. Having a decent first round is what you are always trying to do, but you have to remember that I'd won the Order of Merit and was playing well and was comfortable with my game and things were going well all around, so it was just an exciting moment and I didn't really think anything of it.
“It was a smaller field then of 80 or so and the top 40 made the cut. There were a lot of past champions playing then so basically you had to beat 30-odd guys playing the weekend. Getting into the top 40, making the cut and playing the weekend was the first goal and I did that quite comfortably. Then you are more relaxed pegging it up on Saturday morning and going out.
“When you are playing well and break 70 at Augusta you feel fine. I was doing well at the time and it wasn't a problem going out to play, it was trying to shoot the best score that you could.
“I do remember on the Sunday when I played with Lanny Wadkins we were in the middle of the field and Lanny shot 68 and I shot 73 and he finished third.
That's how tight it was, so if you did shoot a good score you went racing up the field. I finished 14th and was pretty happy with that. I knew I was going to get invited back the next year. They were good times.”