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Ronan Rafferty paved the way for Irish at US Open

By Liam Kelly

For all the glory of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in recent years, it should not be overlooked that 25 years ago another Ulsterman, Ronan Rafferty, was changing the face of Irish golf.

Rafferty, European Tour winner of the Order of Merit in 1989, had received an invitation to play in the 1990 US Open, which, for Irish golf, had remained virtually the 'forgotten Major' for decades.

Indeed, pretty much all of the Majors in the USA were off limits to Irish professionals for many years, as much for the difficulty in getting into them as the long-distance travel and unfamiliar courses.

Rafferty, a member of the Ryder Cup team which halved the '89 match at the Belfry, thereby retaining the Cup, was hot property at the time.

His presence at the Masters - he finished 12th - and the US Open at Medinah in 1990 was a turning point for Irish golf; no Irish pro had played in the tournament since the War.

The European Tour was on the rise through the '80s, thanks in part to the Ryder Cup successes and the emergence of a group of hugely talented golfers headed by Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo.

Rafferty was not far behind them in raw talent, although his performances at the US Open did not reflect that. His competition debut resulted in a 63rd-place finish.

The next year, at Hazeltine, Rafferty left the course after 27 holes when he was 11 over par and flew home that evening. He was fined by the European Tour for his withdrawal. Rafferty went back again in '92 at Pebble Beach, but missed the cut, and that was the end of his Stateside experience in the Majors.

However, a new generation was coming along in the early '90s, spearheaded by Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley. A few years later, Padraig Harrington turned professional.

Later on, McDowell arrived, and in the last five years, the phenomenon that is McIlroy has stamped his authority all over the game of golf. Harrington set the tone, not only by his two Open victories, but also by winning the US PGA in Oakland Hills. An Irishman winning a Major - brilliant.

An Irishman winning two and then three Majors - amazing.

But an Ulsterman taking home a Major from America raised the bar to a new level. Enter stage left, McDowell in 2010. Pebble Beach, US Open, all the big names in action, but there he was, leader after two rounds; he was three shots behind Dustin Johnson going into round four and the rest is history.

A year later at Congressional, McIlroy, then 22, was the next US Open champion, setting a new low 72-hole record of 268 (16 under par).

No matter what happens at Chambers Bay this week, McDowell and McIlroy's past success has already elevated the standing of the Irish in this tournament.

Selected tee-off times (UK times), Thursday/Friday:

3:33pm/9:33pm: Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Angel Cabrera.

4:06pm/10:06pm - Hideki Matsuyama, Graeme McDowell, Matt Kuchar.

4:17pm/10:17pm - Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia.

4:28pm/10:28pm - Martin Kaymer, (a) Gunn Yang, Rory McIlroy.

9:55pm/3:55pm - Lee Janzen, (a) Oliver Schniederjans, Darren Clarke

10:17pm/ 4:17pm - Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Rose.

10:28pm/4:28pm - Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, Louis Oosthuizen.

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