Golf short game guru pitches up in west Cavan

New state of the art facilities for Slieve Russell

Hard work has never been something Gareth Raflewski has shied away from, writes Mark McGowan.

The same work ethic that took the kid from Omagh through an engineering degree in Liverpool, then onto the professional golf circuit, has now made him the most coveted short game coach on the LPGA Tour and promises to make the Raflewski Performance Academy at the Slieve Russell the most innovative and finely tuned of its kind.

“I wanted to go to European Tour Q-School when I was 18 but my parents convinced me to get my education sorted first so I went to England and got my degree and then worked for a year as an engineer, but I just had the bug for golf.”

To scratch that itch, Raflewski joined the professional citrcuit, travelling all over Europe, Canada and the United States on the mini-tour circuit and quickly realised that he had a gift for teaching.

“I made myself a good putter, and a decent chipper, pitcher and bunker player as well and I had lots of good players – players that I’d be playing with on Tour – come to me and ask if I’d take a look at them, so I started working with really good players right off the bat. It wasn’t the 30-handicappers that you’d normally have if you’re just starting your coaching career.”

Professional golf is a minefield and only the very best can make it to the big leagues unscathed. For every player with their sights set on a Green Jacket or a Claret Jug, there are thousands more who have next month’s mortgage payment in theirs. Some spend their life chasing unattainable dreams but Raflewski wasn’t one of them. “I decided that I just didn’t want to travel and compete anymore because I knew that I just wasn’t good enough, so I decided that I’d need to focus on something specific if I was going to make a difference.”

Drive for show and putt for dough is one of the oldest clichés in the game, but like all clichés, there is more than a grain of truth to it. What often sets the very best in the world apart is the quality of their short game, their imagination, and their ability to execute delicate shots under extreme pressure. Raflewski had already dipped his toe into the waters with his informal sessions at mini-tour events and now he was ready to dive in.

“I decided I was going to read and study as much of the short game as possible, and I literally didn’t look at any golf swings, I was just going to focus entirely on 100-yards and in. I went to other instructors to see what they were doing, talked to other good players and really just did whatever I could to improve and build my reputation as someone who teaches the short game.”

Like everything else, it is a results based business. Living in London, Ontario – his wife is Canadian and they opted to settle about an hour’s drive from Toronto – he began working as an assistant pro at a high-end private club ten years ago.

“It’s a great club with great facilities but there wasn’t really anybody doing any teaching and there was no appetite for it at the time. It really wasn’t a priority for the pros that were here. But they took me on and we ramped up a bunch of programmes and we were doing 1,200-1,500 lessons a summer.”

As his reputation grew locally, Gareth began to work with a number of touring professionals who were on the mini tours and on the fringes of the major tours. The big break came when the LPGA staged an event at a neighbouring club and Raflewski was introduced to Jane Park.

“A friend of a friend referred her to me and that was the start of my reputation growing really because I started working with her and she did really well and then I started working with her friend and she did really well and it kind of snowballed from there.”

Pretty soon, Raflewski began working with Ariya Jutanugarn, a 20-year old Thai golfer whose older sister Moriya had been one of the first players to see their scoring and earnings improve dramatically under the Irishman’s tutelage.

Ariya began 2016 at 66 in the rankings and by year’s end had won six times on tour, had landed her first major title at the Open Championship, and was the number one ranked player in the world. And she had just turned 21.

Unsurprisingly, the short game guru behind the rapid success was now the hottest commodity in the coaching department and the clients began lining up. “When I go on tour now,” he says, “I’ll be at the course from maybe six am until about 8 or 8.30 that evening and I’ll be working with maybe ten players a day.” Among those are Ko Jin-young – the current world number one – and Lydia Ko – a two-time major winner.

And now Gareth is bringing his talents home with the first Raflewski academy set to open at the Slieve Russell.

“I got talking to Gordon [Smyth, head pro] through a mutual friend and I realised that he was a really good teacher, and we got on really well together, and eventually he asked me if I would be interesting in doing something there.

"I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I’ve always wanted to do something back home, so I looked at the facilities and what was available and I thought that there was the potential do something really great, something different, but it had to be state of the art technology. This wasn’t going to be just another driving range where you go for a lesson, you know, it has to be an experience.”

And state of the art it most certainly will be. High resolution cameras, a GC2 Quad launch monitor, SAM PuttLab, Capto 3D Putting and Swing Catalyst Video will all be available for collecting data and providing additional information. “I love technology,” Ralewski admits, “but at the end of the day it’s how the data is used and my teaching philosophy is much simpler than that. But you might have an accountant who is super analytical, he’s going to want to see all the data and eat it all up but you might have somebody else who just wants to bang a few balls and we’ll be the ones who’ll gather the information and help us devise a strategy to take them to the next step.”

Ironically, as Raflewski’s academy begins to take shape on the turf where Leona Maguire first honed her skills, they have yet to cross paths professionally. “We’ve actually never even met,” he concedes, “but she’s been at tournaments that I’ve been at and people have told me that you have to meet her but we just haven’t run into each other yet.”

Whether Maguire and Raflewski ever join forces remains to be seen, but with the addition of the academy to the already superb facilities at the Slieve Russell, the chances of Ireland’s next supreme golfing talent emerging from the drumlins of Ballyconnell have taken a giant leap forward.

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