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Gareth Raflewski, centre, a golf coach based in London, Ont., works with one of his prized students, Ariya Jutanugarn, at Magna Golf Club in Aurora, Ont., on Aug. 19, 2019.

Jeff Brooke

Gareth Raflewski has become the most coveted short-game guru on the LPGA Tour, although he never really intended to be.

The golf instructor, based in London, Ont., initially aimed to be a touring professional, competing for a living. And even when he gave up that dream and turned to coaching, he set his sights on working with the top men on the PGA Tour. But a lucky break about five years ago and an ensuing track record of taking his female players to the heights of success have established him as the go-to guy for women who want to overhaul, fix or just polish their skills in golf’s shortest shots.

Raflewski is so in-demand whenever he’s at an LPGA Tour event now that he can only keep track of his hectic schedule by booking lessons on the hour in his iPhone calendar.

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“They kind of all know now that they have to book early before I get booked up,” Raflewski said just before heading to this week’s CME Group Tour Championship, the final event of the LPGA Tour season. “They have to book me just like a dentist.”

Raflewski, 39, born in Northern Ireland and educated in England, had ambitions to make his living as a player, launching his pro career on minor-league circuits in Europe and Canada, including what’s now known as Mackenzie Tour – PGA Tour Canada.

When he transitioned to coaching more than 10 years ago, he started at the bottom. His early teaching venues included an indoor range at a Nevada Bob’s retail store in downtown Toronto and a mom-and-pop course in the heart of Southwestern Ontario farm country. But he also had a plan.

Looking around the Canadian coaching landscape, he saw high-profile instructors such as junior specialist Henry Brunton and emergent Sean Foley, who went on to work with Tiger Woods and other PGA Tour megastars.

They were full-swing or all-purpose coaches and Raflewski saw a way to differentiate himself by focusing on just one aspect of the game. In another interview earlier in the year, he said he was a good chipper as a player and taught himself to be a very good putter, so he naturally gravitated toward a specialty in the short game.

“I just decided, if I was going to stand out or be special, that I needed to do something different,” said Raflewski, who grabbed every book and video he could on the subject and took lessons himself to help him come up with his teaching principles.

A civil engineer before he turned to tour golf in 2004, and a believer in science even though he teaches putting as an art, he said he must be assured of a tip before he teaches it. “I’m very protective of a player’s career. I need to make sure I’m doing something that’s going to make them better.”

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His big break came when LPGA Tour player Jane Park looked him up on a referral in 2014 while passing through London, Ont., for the CP Women’s Open. Raflewski had by then relocated to his current base at RiverBend Golf Club, a private facility in a western suburb of that city.

The American player doubled her money winnings in their first season working together, an improvement that was immediately noted by other players on the tight-knit LPGA Tour. Park called him a “genius” and others started lining up to seek his services.

Thailand’s Moriya Jutanugarn signed on with him in late 2015 and her winnings doubled in 2016 and nearly tripled again the next year. Her sister, Ariya, joined Raflewski in 2016 as the 66th-ranked player in the world and rose to No. 1 by June, 2017.

Raflewski has also taken Jin Young Ko to the top of the charts since they had their first lesson a year ago, just after the 2018 CME Group Tour Championship. They spent an intensive two weeks working together in Naples, Fla., and Ko completely overhauled her game.

“We changed everything,” Raflewski said. “We changed her short game, her set-up, how she pitched the ball, how she practises, her putting.”

She also changed her life. The 24-year-old South Korean won two major tournaments this year and two other regular LPGA events, including the CP Women’s Open near Toronto in August. She is also the current No. 1 and has earned LPGA player-of-the-year honours regardless of what she does at the Tour Championship this weekend.

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Raflewski has now worked with at least 50 players on the LPGA Tour. He has about eight regulars in his stable but he’ll also slot in one-off lessons to anyone else who can squeeze their way into his iPhone calendar. He even continues to instruct RiverBend members and other recreational golfers who seek him out. His rack rate is $500 an hour, but it’s adjustable, based on the player.

“I saw him working with some really good players obviously and thought I’d give it a shot,” said Emma Talley, one of his lesser-known players whose upward trajectory is nonetheless significant – she regained her playing card for 2020 at this year’s gruelling LPGA qualifying school this month.

“You see what players he works with and they’re all really successful. That’s the proof. He’s booked. He’s slam-packed. He’s so popular out here.”

Raflewski flew to Florida last week for another immersive session with Ko. The coach then spent much of this week tending to his other players entered in the season finale, including the Jutanugarn sisters, former No. 1 Lydia Ko and emerging Chinese star Yu Liu, who won more than US$800,000 this year in her sophomore season on tour.

He also put the word out that he would have time to see anyone else during his visit to Tiburon Golf Club in Naples this week. A handful of players were expected to fly in for lessons.

“I don’t like to be standing around,” Raflewski said. “I want to be working and helping as many people as I can.”

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Ahead of the first round Thursday, as he supervised Jin Young Ko while she hit wedge shots on the range at Tiburon, he chatted easily with players he doesn’t even advise, including Canadian Brooke Henderson, who was warming up next to Ko. (Henderson relies on her father, Dave, as her coach.)

Raflewski’s Irish accent and charming banter are as well known on the tour as his advice on golf mechanics. He ensures he has lots of chatter material by keeping notes in his iPhone on what he’s been working on with each player but also details of their regular lives. It’s an old trick he learned in an early job as a bartender, when he kept a notebook at the bar and wrote down customers’ names, drink orders and a couple of personal details that he could summon on their next visits.

U.S. rookie Lauren Stephenson, speaking at the CP Women’s Open this summer, said she enlisted Raflewski for putting advice because she was frustrated with striking her woods and irons well and yet not converting on enough of her birdie chances. But he’s guided her on far more than that.

“He helps me with the mental side of putting, not just that your stroke has to be perfect,” she said. “If I’m struggling I can just go to him and say this is where my head is at when I’m putting and he has good advice.”

Both Stephenson and Talley had never had a short-game lesson in their lives before connecting with Raflewski, but noted his mentorship has been just as valuable as his tips. “We talk about a lot about outside-the-ropes stuff as well,” Talley said.

Moriya Jutanugarn agreed his mentorship on “just life” means as much to her as his golf knowledge, and her sister, Ariya, said she looks forward to seeing Raflewski’s children when he brings them along to tour stops as much she does his advice on fine-tuning her fundamentals.

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“I’m pretty close to his family,” Ariya said. “He has two little boys and we love them. We wish we could see them every week.”

While Raflewski has reached a point where he’d be hard-pressed to take on any more LPGA regulars and has limited time for others, he’s not about to coast or stand still. He said this month he may coach a few PGA Tour players next year, in addition to rookie Michael Gligic of Burlington, Ont., whom he has worked with for years.

And he’s spreading his gospel further by developing some training gadgets in partnership with Canadian companies Catalyst Golf and Golf Supply House. The six training aids are aimed at players of all levels.

“There’s lot of science to them,” Raflewski said. "But they’re not complicated to use.”

But he has no plans to abandon the LPGA Tour, where he’s built his reputation and the careers of so many players under his wing.

“I almost 100 per cent was going to try to get on the PGA Tour,” he said of his original plan, “and I now I have worked my way up on this tour. I definitely don’t want to leave this tour. It’s been good to me.”

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