'I've never seen golf as a job'
Kevin Phelan hopes a high-brow reading list can help him retain his Tour card
As the US Open surged to a thrilling climax on this day two years ago, Kevin Phelan sat with the game's elite in the players' lounge at Merion, pleased to have gone where no Irish amateur had gone before. There, he marvelled at television images of a winning par from Justin Rose on the 511-yard 18th, which he himself had been satisfied to bogey some hours earlier.
The memory of completing four rounds in golf's most notorious cauldron will always be special to him. But those carefree days are some way removed from the performances he will need during the coming months to regain his fully exempt privileges on the European Tour.
Still, it doesn't appear to be a struggle. In fact when we met a few days ago at Royal Dublin GC, the image projected by the familiar, open face was of a confident young man who has simply taken an unplanned detour en route to a pre-determined target.
From his background as a 24-year-old university graduate, born in New York of Irish parents, one sensed a particular empathy with the horrific events at Berkeley.
"I got really nervous on first hearing the news, because I have two cousins in California at the moment on J1s," he said softly. "It's terrible what's happened. A huge tragedy. Totally unexpected. I mean students, going over there to work for the summer, enjoy themselves with their lives ahead of them. Just starting out. Truly terrible."
There was no need to remind him of his good fortune in being able to earn a living at a game he loves. "I try not to take tournament golf too seriously," he said, almost apologetically. "To be honest, I've never looked on playing golf as a job, but I take my tournament preparation very seriously indeed. That can be hard work, whereas what happens on the course is simply sport; a game."
At this point, it seemed appropriate to mention a story I heard some years ago about the great Peter Thomson and his attitude to gifted young players. It seems that when a self-appointed golfing scout would grab Thomson's arm and regale him about the remarkable skills of a particular young player, the celebrated Australian would invariably reply with this simple question: "What does he do with the other eight hours?"
As it happens, Phelan has just moved into a house in Blackrock, Co Dublin with pals from his amateur days, Richard Knightly of Royal Dublin and Jack Lenihan of Portmarnock. He smiled knowingly. Even in little more than 18 months on tour, he has learned the importance of how to spend the leisure time when he's neither sleeping nor playing golf.
"I don't like the term 'killing time.' I prefer to think of using time in a manner which will be to my best advantage on tour. I've discussed this at length with my coach, Mark McCumber, and with my caddie." Both men have much to offer, McCumber as a one-time successful practitioner on the PGA Tour and Mark Mazo as a graduate in comparative literature from Harvard University.
"As an [elite] amateur, you're very often in a team atmosphere where everything is organised," he said. "You get to the golf course at a specific time; you dine at a specific time." I couldn't resist interjecting that if someone stands up to go to the toilet, another seven or eight are likely to follow suit. The old herd instinct at work.
Phelan laughed. "At first, I found it strange having so much time to myself as a pro. But now I enjoy managing that time. Off-course discipline has become really important to me."
Successful players find their own way of coping, and for Ian Poulter this doesn't include reading. In fact he has famously claimed never to have read a book. Which wouldn't suit Phelan.
"I'm reading The Picture of Dorian Gray at the moment, having already enjoyed The Importance of Being Earnest," said the graduate in philosophy from North Florida University. "My caddie is a very smart guy and he has introduced me to Oscar Wilde. I have read Steinbeck's The Pearl and the next one Mark has lined up for me is The Old Man and the Sea, which will be my first experience of Ernest Hemingway. There's so much good, old fiction out there and I find it hard to justify reading new fiction."
He went on to relate how he also prefers his music the old-fashioned way, off vinyl, preferably from the 1980s. And when he goes to a movie, he likes it to engage his mind rather than let it simply wash over him. "A real favourite is The Talented Mr Ripley, mainly because of the story and the acting talent of Matt Damon, Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman," he said. "I also enjoyed Stay, with Ewen McGregor and Naomi Watts.
"I think I understand where Peter Thomson is coming from and since I've begun putting my mind to it as a tournament pro, I've found that there's always something you can do or think about. I make a point of using my time as best I can, especially in preparing for the next tournament."
Planning a schedule, however, became somewhat tricky after last November's experience at the Tour School where, from a strong position after 72 holes, he slipped to closing rounds of 74 and 76 and finished 65th - well outside the qualifying mark. It represented quite a contrast from the previous year when, at the first attempt, he had a splendid birdie on his final hole to claim 17th place among the qualifiers. So he is now consigned to Category 17, for players who finished between 126th and 147th in last season's money list.
"Sure, I was disappointed at the time, but I'd be a lot more confident now than I was 12 months ago," he said. "My results tell the tale. I've made almost as much money in 11 starts this year [€161,234] as I did for the whole of last season.
"This leaves me 86th on the Race to Dubai and I believe €250,000 would be a safe number to regain my card at the end of the season. That means earning another €90,000 and with prospects of another seven or eight tournament starts, I should get the opportunities I need, starting in next week's BMW International Open in Munich, where I'm currently first reserve. Getting into that would be a pleasant bonus, though France and Scotland in the following weeks will be tough. So I need to play well if I make Germany."
From three notable finishes, Phelan knows he can compete and win in the top grade. The first of these was last October's Hong Kong Open in which he had three closing birdies for a 66 and third place. Then there was his second place for a reward of €80,600 from the Joburg Open in early March this year and a share of third place for €60,255 in the Hassan Trophy four weeks later. "I find that if I concentrate on routine, the pressure takes care of itself," he said.
All the while, there are precious images from two appearances in the US Open. The first of these was Pebble Beach in 2010 when, like an awestruck apprentice eyeing a master craftsman, he seemed to soak up every motion from practice-day partner Pádraig Harrington, while McCumber's son, Tyler, carried a college bag on which Phelan's mother had stitched a tricolour, just to remind him of his roots.
Then there was Merion, where he opened with an admirable 71 and managed to make the half-way cut after an interrupted second round was completed early on the Saturday morning. That was when he followed a dismal outward 41 from Friday with a wonderfully courageous back-nine of 36 to get through to the weekend on the qualifying limit of 148.
The week had started with the child-like enthusiasm of his father, John, out in the middle of the 18th fairway to see the plaque commemorating the spot from which Ben Hogan had hit the game's most famous one-iron shot on the way to a glorious US Open triumph in 1950.
"As a par four, that remains one of the hardest holes I've ever played," he said with feeling. "It wasn't as visually intimidating perhaps as the 18th at Sawgrass, say, with all that water down the left, but in terms of difficulty it's still way up there. Miss the fairway and it becomes a par five, which it was for me all week. Simple as that."
Those enduring memories, along with a US Amateur appearance at Chambers Bay in 2010, have lent a very personal dimension to this particular weekend.
Kevin Phelan is an ambassador for Europcar Ireland, who provide car and van rental nationwide at 14 locations. Visit www.europcar.ie
Sunday Indo Sport