Wednesday 13 December 2017

Irish amateur Kevin Phelan in dreamland as opening round at US Open leaves rivals in shade

Ireland's Kevin Phelan tees off on the 14th hole during the first round of the 2013 US Open
Ireland's Kevin Phelan tees off on the 14th hole during the first round of the 2013 US Open
Padraig Harrington, of Ireland, tees off
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts to his shot on the second hole
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, of Spain, tees off on the eighth hole
Ernie Els, of South Africa, tees off on the eighth hole
Phil Mickelson smiles to the gallery after teeing off
Tiger Woods (L) of the U.S., Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy (C) walk to the seventh tee during the first round of the 2013 U.S. Open
Tiger Woods tees off During the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club
Luke Donald, of England, reacts to his tee shot on the 11th hole

Karl MacGinty at Merion

KEVIN PHELAN rivalled Rory McIlroy as Ireland’s top performer as darkness fell on a marathon first day at the US Open.

Phelan, 22 and currently completing his studies at North Florida State University, boosted his prospect of a place on the Great Britain and Ireland team at September’s Walker Cup with a battling 71.

He even challenged for the lead in golf’s most gruelling championship, narrowly missing a 10-footer for birdie on 16, his fifth, that would have earned him a share of the honours on two-under with Tim Clark, Phil Mickelson and Charl Schwartzel.

Though he dropped a couple of shots late in a round interrupted for more than three and a half hours by a violent electrical storm, Phelan still finished two strokes better than three-time Major Champion Padraig Harrington, the only other Irishman to complete 18 holes.

With a total of four and a quarter hours of play lost during two weather delays yesterday, McIlroy and fellow Ulstermen Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke were among 76 players still on the course when day one ended at Merion.

McIlroy three-putted 11 in the glooming to slip back to level par with seven holes of his first round to play, while McDowell, with two double-bogeys on his card, was three-over through 12 and Clarke was five-over for his 14 holes.

Phelan played phenomenally well from tee to green, hitting 12 of 14 fairways and finding 14 of 18 greens in regulation, though a couple of three-putt bogeys were costly for the Waterford Castle favourite, who had 33 putts in all.

Conversely, Harington missed 10 greens and was frustrated after making bogey on two of the easiest holes on the golf course, the par three 13th, his third, and eighth, and headed straight to the range to work on his ailing wedge play.

“I’m happy enough,” said Phelan. “It would have been nice to hole some more putts but I was steady from tee to green and gave myself plenty of chances.”

Mental discipline was the key to his performance. Admitting he’d not stuck to his game plan when, as a teenager, he qualified for the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, Phelan never got carried away on a long, difficult day.

“I probably learned more from that week at Pebble Beach than the rest of my golfing career combined,” he said.

“That was a huge development for me, so today was all about just staying patient, keep plodding along, even when I made a couple of mistakes.

“Last week was quite tough (at the Palmer Cup match between the universities of the US and Europe) but it was great preparation in terms of having to play a high standard of golf and having to stay patient with yourself.”

Not even thoughts of making the cut will be allowed to intrude. “I just think about hitting the first fairway,” explained Phelan, who was born in New York but spent much of his childhood in his father’s native city, Waterford.

“My only goal this week was to hit every shot as it comes and just pay no mind to everything else that goes on. I’m just going to try and keep it up.

“It’s always nice to compare yourself to the best in the world. It’s the first time I’ve been anywhere close to them. I’ll just keep plodding along and do my best,” added Phelan, who plans to go for European Tour Q-School in September, after the Walker Cup.

Super-commuter Phil Mickelson, who flew overnight from his daughter’s junior school graduation in Southern California on Wednesday evening and landed in Philadelphia at 4.30 am yesterday, led in the clubhouse after a remarkable first round 67.

Yet out on the golf course, Luke Donald completed a hat-trick of birdies on 13 just before play ended to ease one ahead of the Californian with five holes of his opening round to play.

Tournament favourite Tiger Woods was among those still on the East Course. Unlike his playing companions McIlroy and Masters champion Adam Scott, who holed-out for birdie on 11, the World No 1 faces a three-foot putt for par when play resumes at 7.15 this morning.

Woods appeared to injure his left wrist playing out of deep rough on the opening hole and winced visibly several times, especially at 11 when hitting an approach shot from the first cut that fell well short of the green.

However, he made no reference to the problem in a brief post round interview, merely saying: “I’ve got a lot of holes to play tomorrow and hopefully I can play them better than I did today.”

Unless Tiger’s putting improves this weekend on greens slowed by several downpours, he’ll not win his 15th Major and first in five years since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.

Lee Westwood is unlikely to remain a fan of the wicker baskets which, uniquely, adorn the pins at Merion.

A well-aimed approach shot by the Englishman cannoned back off the hole marker at 12 and came to rest 20 yards from the green, leading to the infuriating double-bogey six which knocked him out of a share of the lead.

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