Honours graduate aims to pass one exam at a time
With a fierce Irish competitiveness and American confidence, Kevin Phelan can go a long way, writes Dermot Gilleece
As one of the most unremitting tests of a notoriously demanding game, it has broken many young hearts even before they have had the chance of achieving competitive maturity. Yet for the successful ones like Kevin Phelan, Qualifying School is essentially about adhering to a simple plan.
Born in New York, reared in Waterford and educated in north Florida where his father, John, owns a restaurant chain, Phelan has gained European Tour status only a few weeks past his 23rd birthday. And, typically, there was a plan B if he failed to get among the top grade at PGA Catalunya on November 15.
By becoming the first Irish amateur to make the cut in the US Open, which he did at Merion last June, he was exempted through to the second stage of American qualifying for the Web.Com Tour. But there was no need to take the place he had booked for last week's test in Gautier, Mississippi, where he had planned to fly directly from Spain.
Instead, he indulged his Irishness in a visit to relatives in Ballygunner, near Waterford Castle GC, where he is attached. Both his parents are from close to Waterford City and I can recall first seeing him as a callow youth of 19, carrying a North Florida University bag with a tricolour sewn to it, courtesy of his mother Josephine. That was when he trailed some distance in Graeme McDowell's wake in the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach.
His success since then can be attributed to a deep respect for his chosen pursuit. Known to have sharply rebuked an amateur team colleague for firing a club in anger, he places great store in patience and self-management. And rather than becoming dispirited, he had obvious sympathy for contemporaries Alan Dunbar and Paul Cutler, who have so far failed to achieve Tour status.
"I've played a lot of golf with Paul and Alan, who are excellent players," he said. "Actually I played with Alan in the second stage of the Qualifying School which is really a fickle process. To have to do it all in one week can be really tough and the fact that they haven't got onto the European Tour yet is no indicator that they won't in the future."
I suggested that the School was a bit like sitting through three searching interview sessions before being informed at the end of it all that you had landed one of the jobs on offer. "I've never looked on it from a perspective like that," said Phelan with a laugh, as if mocking such a simplistic view.
Then he went on: "My goal when I turned pro [in September] was to have a place to play next year. I was still kind of testing the waters. From Merion, I knew that when I played well, I could at least compete. And I knew that I needed to make the cut in the final stage to guarantee myself Challenge Tour status. But having done that, I really wanted to secure a European Tour card.
"A couple of good finishing rounds would give me the chance I needed. And I knew patience was crucial. With so much on the line, it was very easy to look ahead. So I really tried to stay in the present and focus on one shot at a time. Which, of course, is a lot easier said than done."
Yet he did it in style, which shouldn't have surprised us from a player who carded a first-round 71 in the US Open at punishing Merion, just like the aspiring champion, Justin Rose, had done. And he finished with a 74, the same score as Martin Kaymer and Dustin Johnson, among others. In the event, his approach to the 463-yard final hole at Catalunya was memorable.
"I wouldn't be one of the longer hitters; probably carry the ball 270 to 280 yards off the tee," he said. "With a shot of 217 yards into the wind, I knew what I had to do. Obviously the pressure had been increasing over the finishing stretch, but I remained committed to my original strategy, which was to try and birdie every hole, unless it was dangerous to aim for the target. And with the pin on a back shelf, not too close to either side, I told myself that if I went once more for the birdie, it could become an easy par. The shot suited my eye; I went straight for it and then knocked in the putt from about five feet."
He went on: "A lot of planning went into the entire qualifying process, including the support of Chubby Chandler's ISM. Small details can become very important, like the hotel arrangements they made for me at the second stage in Portugal, where the course happened to be in a remote location. One player, who had travelled all the way from California, had a hotel so far from the course that he ended up missing his tee-time in the second-last group on the final day.
"Merion gave me a great boost of confidence. Having put too much pressure on myself at Pebble Beach, it was great to play well on the US Open stage once more, especially on such a difficult course. I really enjoyed it this time."
Along the way, there were helpful words from one of the game's elite. "I've looked up to Pádraig Harrington for as long as I've been playing golf and he's been really nice and very, very helpful," said Phelan. "Keep practising your short game, he told me. And when you turn pro, try and keep everything the same. Don't get drawn in by equipment contracts from different companies. I definitely took his advice there."
Then there's Phelan's coach, Mark McCumber, who finished third in the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1979 and went on to capture the
1988 Players Championship at Sawgrass. "Mark lives only half-an-hour up the road from our home in St Augustine," he said. "I'd love to have him out on Tour with me a couple of times but I have yet to talk to him about it. Things have been happening so quickly."
Phelan is hoping to get into next week's Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek, South Africa. Failing that, he is looking to the Hong Kong Open the following week. "I love travelling and if things go well, I could see myself playing on both sides of the Atlantic," he said.
"But for the moment, I will start the New Year playing from St Augustine as a base. Which shouldn't be a problem, since most of the early tournaments aren't really in Europe at all."
As a gifted sportsman who has already graced some of golf's iconic venues, Phelan is a product of Irish competitive instincts and American confidence. Which should leave him admirably equipped for a testing road ahead.