TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Amateur Phelan keen to let his own game do talking at US Open, writes Dermot Gilleece
Like an awestruck apprentice eyeing a master-craftsman, Kevin Phelan absorbed every motion as Padraig Harrington's drive split one of the tightest fairways in championship golf. It was Tuesday of US Open week at Pebble Beach and they stood on the tee of the famous 18th, while Pacific breakers pounded the rocky defences in front of them.
On the previous day, there was the thrill of playing with the 2003 champion, Jim Furyk. And on Wednesday, Phelan would have a further nine holes in the company of Major champions Retief Goosen and Ben Curtis. But this was special, because of what Harrington did next.
Into a stiff, right-to-left wind, the Dubliner's ball came to rest between the shore and the first of two infamous trees on the right. Then, with 257 yards to the front of the green, he smashed a three-wood all the way to the putting surface, just as Jack Nicklaus had done from further right, when playing his final US Open hole here in 2000.
Except that the conditions were a lot more favourable back then. "A bit of a hook off the toe," was how Harrington dismissively described the shot to me. The 19-year-old amateur qualifier, however, saw it very differently, as I suspect he was meant to. "Padraig hit a really great shot to get it on the green from where he was," Phelan said.
After coming through local qualifying on Monday, June 7, Phelan's adventure began in earnest last weekend. At the family's St Augustine home in north Florida, his mother, Josephine, who hails from Tallow outside Waterford City, set about ensuring that Kevin wouldn't suffer a crisis of identity.
On the Friday evening, after buying some Irish tricolours from a local shop, she sewed one of them onto a pocket of her son's college golf bag, beside its University of North Florida (UNF) logo. "Perfect," she thought, on surveying her handiwork. "Perfect," Kevin agreed. Being born in New York gives him dual nationality, but he considers himself to be Irish. And this would be his US Open bag."
Last Saturday morning, he and his father, John, set off for the west coast in the company of school pal Tyler McCumber and his dad, former US tour professional Mark McCumber. On reaching their destination, a rented house on the famous 17 Mile Drive, the two youths couldn't resist heading straight for the course, about five minutes' drive away.
Given the cost of real estate around these parts, their proximity to the course suggests that the Famous Amos chain of six restaurants that John Phelan bought in Jacksonville about 18 months ago, must be doing rather well.
Meanwhile, Tyler, who played with Kevin in the Nease team that won the Florida High School title about 18 months ago, had already pledged to caddie for his pal. But for now, they were players together, battling declining light on the last five holes at one of golf's most celebrated venues.
"It looked so different from what I had seen on television," said Phelan. "The feel of the place. The wind off the sea and the spectacle of those marvellous finishing holes. My father says it reminds him of The Old Head of Kinsale. And while playing the full 18 on Sunday, I found myself thinking this was an ideal opportunity to get the sightseeing out of the way so I could really focus on golf from then on."
In these days of highly skilled professionals, it may seem fanciful to think of amateurs as serious challengers in the Major championships.
Yet the fact remains that the US Open has been won on eight occasions by amateurs -- Francis Ouimet (1913), Jerome D Travers (1915), Charles Evans (1916), Bobby Jones (1923,1926,1929,1930) and James Goodman 1933. And four amateurs, including Nick Taylor at Bethpage last year, have carded rounds of 65 in this event.
And if Tom Watson, at 59, could have the golfing world dreaming wonderful dreams with his Turnberry exploits last year, is it not possible for a gifted young amateur to do something similar? Like what 17-year-old Justin Rose did when finishing fourth in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 1998.
Treading uncharted ground for an Irishman, Phelan quite sensibly refused to be guided down that particular road. Instead, he gradually absorbed the precise nature of the forthcoming challenge. Standing 5ft 10ins and weighing just over 11st, he lacks the bulk to be a power hitter, but there was ample evidence of a terrific short game and of accurate striking, especially off the tee.
"He's a nice kid," said Furyk, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach in the same area of north Florida. "His golf coach called and asked if I'd play with him. I've known his caddie, Tyler, for a while and Mark, obviously.
"He was quiet and shy and didn't bombard me with questions. The main thing I told him was that he belonged here. He had fought for a place this week and earned it. I told him to make sure he enjoyed the experience and not to get too overwrought. I could imagine myself at that age. I'd have probably tried so hard, I'd have forgotten to have a good time," he added.
Remarkably calm and self-possessed, Phelan seemed to be taking the experience in his stride. The greens were "okay, though downhill putts are really quick". And he concentrated on feeling comfortable on the 18th tee, knowing that a potentially good round could be ruined there.
Early on Tuesday morning, I received this text message: "I should be goin out about 12 with Harrington. I'm at the course now. Kevin." He was beginning to feel he belonged, just as Furyk had told him he should, and he would be joining the Dubliner for the back nine in the company of another amateur, Ben Martin, who recently graduated from Clemson University.
"Doing your duty," I suggested to Harrington, as they set off the 10th. "Absolutely," he replied. But you felt it was really a labour of love for a player who has never lost touch with his amateur roots.
From a distance, Harrington could be seen sharing his experience with his charges, who were predictably anxious to learn. Then, all too soon for Phelan and Martin, they were walking down the 18th. "Everything Padraig does is so carefully plotted out," said Phelan. "He leaves nothing to chance. Write down everything and know exactly where you want to hit it: that's what I got from him. I see him as a great role model. Somebody to look up to."
Our arrangement for Wednesday was that we'd meet on the practice range after he had played the front nine. When he and his father arrived, I happened to be chatting to Bob Rotella, the celebrated American sports psychologist. Just as I was about to introduce them, there were knowing nods all round.
"No, I'm not working with Kevin," said Rotella. "I just happen to know himself and his dad through a mutual acquaintance." And there we left it.
How had the morning gone? He had played with Curtis, Goosen and an amateur friend, Byeong-Hun An from Korea. Not bad. In three days of practice, he had played with the winners of seven Major championships.
"Goosen didn't say much," said Phelan with a quiet smile. "But he was very friendly and supportive. The main thing I got from them was how they handle themselves. They're all so relaxed. Taking care of business. No big deal. Do what you normally do to prepare, then go and do it. It's been a great help to me. There's nothing special. Keep it simple and get it done.
"Obviously I'd like to make the cut and I think I can, if I stick to my own game. I won't be thinking numbers. On my first day here, I was a bit taken aback by the spectacle, but now that I've got used to it, I can focus better on my golf. That's what I'm going to try and do."
When the big day finally arrived, he started at 2.31pm local time, the sort of draw an amateur qualifier can expect in these events. "Kevin Phelan, Waterford, Ireland" came the announcement on the first tee, which pleased him. But it was followed by a start designed to make stretched nerves all the more fragile.
Blocked drives from a normally straight hitter led to bogeys at the opening two holes. Still, he managed to regain his composure until the real meat of a notoriously punishing back nine. In the process, he was encountering a very different challenge from the practice rounds. Everything looked tighter; pin placements were a lot more demanding and the greens were brutally firm and fast.
Ultimately, he was made to endure the longest, toughest day of his golfing life. Though he forced the odd, weak smile afterwards, the pain of an 83, culminating in figures of 6, 5, 6 -- double-bogey, double-bogey, bogey -- was etched into his fresh young face.
"The greens became really bumpy towards the finish, making it really difficult to hold them," he said. "But I enjoyed it. Though I finished off pretty bad, you can't but enjoy it out here. I just wish I could have played a bit better, but what could I do?"
Under leaden skies, I picked himself and Tyler up at the 18th on Friday, midway through their second round. Just when he needed a lift like the pitch-in eagle of his qualifying tournament 11 days previously, Phelan's attempted pitch over the bunker on the right hit a tree and came straight down.
After the bogey, player and caddie looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and headed for their final nine. Perhaps something really good was about to happen. It was. Phelan covered the first six holes in 4, 4, 4, 4, 2, 4, to be two under par for the stretch. And he kept it going to reach the turn in 34, one under par for the outward journey and a round of 75.
"Those nine holes, with a punched seven-iron to six feet for my birdie at the fifth, were really good for my confidence," he said afterwards. "It was the way I knew I could play, once I got used to the crowds. Now I can't wait for next year's qualifiers. I really want to do this again."
As an afterthought while he walked away, I wondered what was next on his schedule. "College tournaments," he shouted over his shoulder. "And they won't be like this." Then he was gone, his young head filled to bursting with glorious memories.