Brian Viner: Rafferty finds a route from the bunker to the cellar

There are some golfers who would willingly swap a round of 61 for a '61 Château Lafite
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The 250th anniversary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was celebrated at the weekend. Not many sports can boast such a heritage, and it's worth considering that golf was around for at least 250 years before the R&A came into being.

The 250th anniversary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was celebrated at the weekend. Not many sports can boast such a heritage, and it's worth considering that golf was around for at least 250 years before the R&A came into being.

But for all those 500 years there have been folk who have blamed golf and its enthusiasts for despoiling the countryside. If I wasn't a golfer, I'd probably complain too. Certainly there is something dispiriting about seeing a flat featureless golf course carved out of flat featureless fields. I see lots of them out of train windows. But a fine course carefully sculpted from handsome countryside is a different thing, and I recently played one of the finest: Les Bordes in the Loire Valley.

Let me take you straight to the 10th green. I had a six-foot putt for a birdie four, to go one up on my playing partner. When putts just sneak into the hole, they are said to have entered by the back door. Mine climbed up a fire escape, on to the roof and squeezed in through a skylight. But in it went, all the same.

I resisted the temptation to punch the air. My companion might have thought that a disproportionate show of glee. He has had tougher pressure putts than I have. One of them, also a six-footer, was on the final green in the final pairing on the final day of the 1989 Volvo Masters at Valderrama. His playing partner was Jose Maria Olazabal. They arrived at the 18th green tied for first place. Whichever of the two of them completed the hole in fewer strokes would win not only the tournament but also the European Order of Merit. He made it, and by the front door too.

Ronan Rafferty, for it was he, has pretty much retired from the tournament circuit. These days, he commentates for Sky, plays a lot of corporate golf, and acts as a kind of ambassador for various courses, one of which is Les Bordes. It was built in 1984 by Baron Bich, the pen tycoon, and has recently been rated by a leading golf magazine as the second best course in continental Europe, behind the aforementioned Valderrama. Certainly it is a superb track, although there are also a number of lakes, and even though I have mastered the Barnes Wallis technique of making my balls bounce across the water, they don't always reach the other side.

At least as fine as the golf course at Les Bordes is the catering operation. Catering is important to golfers. I know some clubs where more attention is given to the hiring of a new chef than the hiring of a new pro. And some golfers who would swap a round of 61 for a '61 Château Lafite. Rafferty is one; others include Ian Woosnam and the American, Duffy Waldorf. If on a practice ground this summer you see Rafferty in conversation with one or both of those two, it's a virtual certainty that they will be discussing Shiraz and Semillon rather than Tiger and Vijay.

At Les Bordes, Rafferty presided over a wine-tasting with his friend, Guy Butterwick, who runs a London dealership called claret-e. Guy is the mirror image of Ronan, a wine pro with a golf handicap of six, although I fancy Rafferty would consider his wine handicap to be much lower than six.

Probably scratch. He certainly knows his onions, although I have since been told onions have almost nothing to do with the process of making wine.

Whatever, we tasted some 30 bottles that night, enough to obliterate the memory of every ball I lost, yet enhance the memory of my birdie at the 10th, another reason why wine and golf are so compatible. Such was the bonhomie around the table, moreover, that we even settled happily into the company of a large, permatanned loudmouth, with a robust opinion for every piece of robust jewellery he was wearing, which amounted to a lot of opinions. I would have discussed him with the waiter if I'd known the French for nouveau riche.

Anyway, it's taken me a long time to get to the point, but here it is. On the Ryanair flight home from Tours to Stansted the following day I sat next to Rafferty, and we played one of my favourite in-flight games.

If he were permitted to play only 10 golf courses for the rest of his life, I asked, which would they be? "Royal County Down, Brancaster, Pine Valley, Les Bordes, the French National at Versailles, Kiawah Island, Augusta, St Andrews, Doonbeg in Ireland, and The Machrie on Islay," he said, with scarcely a moment's hesitation.

And which would be the 10 individual holes, in the British Isles to make it easier? "The fourth at Swinley Forest, the 17th at Birkdale, the first at Machrihanish, the 14th at St Andrews, the fifth at Royal County Down, the 11th at Dornoch, the sixth at Brancaster, the 18th at Doonbeg, the 11th on the East course at Wentworth, and the 12th at Kingsbarns," he said. He then gave me another 10, just for good measure. And then another 10. And so the flight passed, and my thumping headache with it. It's a myth that fine wine doesn't lead to hangovers, as some who were at the R&A's 250th birthday dinner will surely agree.