At the top of his game
For golf professional Kevin Phelan, mental fortitude and keeping the thought process simple are as key as his swing and short game, writes Alison O'Riordan
Man of the moment and Holywood hero Rory McIlroy better watch out as there is an Irish professional golfer hot on his heels.
Waterford native Kevin Phelan has a stellar amateur golf career behind him and after turning pro in September 2013, the 23-year-old has made a bright start to his European Tour career.
Born in New York city to Waterford parents, his father John's international squash career brought the family to America where he played competitively and coached. "My dad John was an excellent squash player, he played for Ireland at all levels and won the US Nationals when he moved to New York.
"To this day, he helps me a lot with my golf, he has a great understanding of the mental aspect of competitive sport and the balance one needs to find in order to maintain a high level."
When Kevin was three years of age the family returned home and the love affair with golf began. "I used to spend almost every day at Waterford Castle with my brother and friends in the summer. My dad's a big golfer as well, so the three of us used to play a lot."
On the road again at 13 years of age when the family moved to St Augustine in Florida, it was as if the former Walker Cup player was preparing for a life on the tour from an early age.
There was never a decision made to pursue an amateur golf career, it just happened. In America the standard of college golf is high and a good way to prepare for the pro game.
"College golf is played on excellent courses every week and virtually all the top American juniors as well as many Europeans play college golf. It's where most of the top amateurs in the world play outside of the summer months, so it's the best way to play a competitive schedule year-round. It's also a great chance to go to college and learn how to manage yourself on and off the course."
A clever move was to choose to major in psychology in the North Florida University, which would help his beloved game in the long term. "I think it has indirectly helped my golf, I'm a lot more patient and rational now which are traits that are creeping into my golf game."
Aspirations to turn pro in September 2013 had been in the pipeline for quite a while and came about after making the Walker Cup team. "Since it (the Walker Cup) fell the summer after I finished playing college golf, the timing was perfect to turn pro directly after it."
Phelan has been on the European tour for the past seven months and is loving it despite the hectic travelling regime. "Several people have spoken to me about how tough the travelling and the schedule is but I haven't found that to be the case; I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I've wanted to play the European Tour for as long as I can remember and now I have the chance, so I'm trying to make the most of it."
His short game is especially strong, he says. "I much prefer it to hitting balls on the range because the target is so much more attainable. Since I've turned professional, I've noticed that my short game, while it was probably better than average among amateurs, is far behind the top pros. I haven't seen too much of a difference in the level of ball striking, but the ones on the top of the leader board every week are almost always exceptional from 150 yards and closer. While I still think this is a strong area of my game, I've realised that there is plenty of room for improvement."
Another strength is his strong mind and keeping his thought process simple on the course, something coach Mark McCumber repeats to him constantly. "When I focus on the simple aspects of golf, picking a small target and committing to it, I almost always play well; unfortunately, being simple doesn't mean it's easy, but I do my best."
When asked if he is confident he will enter the ranks of Ireland's world-class champions, he replies: "I don't think of long-term goals at all any more. I made the mistake of wasting energy speculating about my chances of making the 2011 Walker Cup team and as a result put far too much pressure on myself and played quite poorly.
"Since realising that mistake, my only goals have been to prepare for each tournament and commit to each shot as it comes. Golf is a difficult game, so I try to keep it as simple as possible."
He has appeared twice in the US Open: in 2010 when he missed the halfway cut, and in 2013 where he finished tied 62nd. "The first time I was completely out of my depth and put far too much pressure on myself. I was much better prepared for last year's US Open and knew what to expect, so I was a lot more confident, although still incredibly nervous. My coach stressed the importance of patience and pre-shot routine, so that was all I tried to focus on this time."
Finishing day one at the US Open at the Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia last year ahead of McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke – not to mention Tiger Woods – how did that feel for the up-and-coming golfer?
"I didn't think about it like that at all, I was just trying to play well. Merion is such a difficult course that it requires total concentration and commitment on every shot, so there wasn't much time to think about where I was on the leader board."
These appearances on the world stage have only increased his desire to succeed and hopefully start taking home a few trophies.
"I've always wanted to play in the biggest tournaments against the best players, it's the only way to measure yourself. I really enjoyed playing in such vibrant atmospheres and on such tough courses. There's a thrill from holing a putt in front of a large gallery that's hard to replicate."
A firm believer that golf is more mental than physical, Kevin finds he plays at his best when he pays little to no attention to the shot he has just hit – whether it be good or bad – and simply focuses on the one he is about to hit. "There is a lot of time to think. Since golf's not a reactionary sport, it is incredibly easy to overanalyse or become frustrated by poor shots."
For now, his goal for 2014 is to prepare for every tournament and to commit to each shot, something that should have McIlroy looking over his shoulder.