He might have lost his European Tour card but Waterford’s Kevin Phelan is feeling so good about himself after a strong finish to his rookie season that he can’t wait to get to the European Tour Qualifying School.
The touring professional for Mount Juliet will celebrate his 24th birthday next Saturday and then pack his bags for Europe and his second trip to the dreaded Q-School final stage at PGA Catalunya in a fortnight, where he brilliantly won his card 12 months ago.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘dreaded’,” Phelan said with a chuckle from Jacksonville in Florida, where he has returned for a few days to see his family and catch up with coach Mark McCumber.
“I feel good about it. I felt like I played quite well during the year but I wasn’t really scoring very well and I was missing a lot of cuts by very small margins. I’m actually looking forward to getting back to PGA Catalunya.”
It’s been a year of tough lessons and hard graft for the former Walker Cup star and while he came up €60,000 short of finishing in the Top 110 in the Race to Dubai who kept their cards, two strong finishes in his last two events of the season have put a huge spring in his step.
Before he went to Fanling for the Hong Kong Open, a trip to Q-School looked a certainty. But he played brilliantly there, carding four rounds in the 60s to claim a career best third and a cheque for €64,546.
All of a sudden he had a chance to save his card by finishing fourth in the season ending ISPS Handa Perth International. And while he could only manage 35th, his performances over those last two weeks flicked a switch in his head and reminded him that he had to go back to taking things one shot at a time. It’s a well worn cliche but it’s a method that has served Phelan well and something he forgot to do at the heart of the season when the cuts line loomed large and he lost patience, putting himself under too much pressure.
“Take just one shot at time and commit to every shot,” he said when asked what he was hoping to do at Q-School. “I felt more pressure this year trying to make cuts instead of focussing on each shot.
“I went back to doing that for the last few weeks and it was very nice to have a good finish in Hong Kong. I played quite well in Australia and it was really encouraging.
“I feel like I have improved and learned a lot. The finish in Hong Kong pushed me into the top 145 in the Race to Dubai, which meant I didn’t have to go to the Second Stage of the Q-School next week. So I was delighted with that. As for Tour School, the best way to look at it is as a great opportunity to get your tour card.”
Rookie seasons can be notoriously difficult but Phelan’s biggest problem wasn’t the perceived loneliness of living out of a suitcase — he had a ball with the Irish brigade — but the pressure to chip and putt for your living.
“I learned a lot about just getting the most out of my rounds,” he said. “In amateur golf you can get away with a bad day and still get into contention. You can’t afford to do that on the European Tour.
“You have to keep the driver in play and when you have a wedge in your hand, give yourself a chance every single time. It’s all about holing from about 10 feet and in.
“In terms of what I learnt, it was just patience. There were times at the start of the year when I had bad starts and I wish I had tried to stay patient because when you try too hard to make cuts it can easily go the other way.”
The ability of top tour players to score was an eye-opener and while he had played in two US Opens and knew how good these players are, seeing how the top pros go about their business with the scoring clubs was a revelation to him.
“Down the road, some more distance would help me but at the moment, you just have to clean up well and try and score well from 150 yards,” he confessed. “That’s where you have to make the most of it. And that’s what I noticed playing with the better players. Shane (Lowry) is as good as anyone with the short clubs and he’s had a great year. Any top player I played with, that’s what I noticed most.”
Former European No 1 Robert Karlsson is a case in point, as Phelan discovered when he played with him in Sweden during the summer.
“I had always thought of him as a great ball striker, big guy and all that, which he is,” Phelan explained. “But his chipping and putting really impressed me. Having watched him on TV growing up, nobody ever said much about his short game but he can get up and down from everywhere and hole putts. When you watch on TV it’s kind of underrated how good all these guys are from 150 yards and in and that’s the difference.
“My game might have been good in that area when I was an amateur but as a pro you are very much in the middle of the pack. That’s where I need to get better so I can take advantage of what I am good at.”
If he could have his year again, Phelan might not turn up at events quite so early. But he still thoroughly enjoyed life on the road, despite the frequent weekends off, the pressures of Fridays and the lack of opportunities to see his coach.
“I was told it was a tough lifestyle and very lonely but I didn’t find it like that at all,” he said, admitting that he hooked up with Ballyclare coach Johnny Foster later in the year to make sure he was on track with what regular coach McCumber had been telling him.
“It was great to be out there even if the travel was tough at times and I had a great relationship with the other lads.
“I played a lot of the same events as Shane (Lowry) and he was a great guy to be around. Pádraig (Harrington) was really helpful to me and great fun too when we coincided. I found that part a lot easier than I expected.”
As for Q-School, he knows the Stadium Course at PGA Catalunya well, having won his card there last year and played the Spanish Open there too.
As he discovered in Hong Kong and Australia, taking it one shot at a time and forgetting about everything else is the key.
“I hear a lot of people talking about courses suiting them and I just found that the weeks I played well, I played well. It didn’t matter what course it was on,” he said.
“Before Hong Kong my best finish this year was on an 8,000 yard course in South Africa that was wide open, which you would think wouldn’t suit my game at all. But I played well. So you just have to keep trying to play well and when you are playing well, hole the putts.”
Kevin Phelan: by the numbers
- Stroke average: 71.85 (139th)
- Driving accuracy: 66.6% (34th)
- Driving distance: 277.1 (161st)
- Greens in regulation: 68.1% (86th)
- Putts per GIR: 1.823 (166th)
- Putts per round: 30.3 (154th)
- Sand saves: 59.6% (58th)
- Scrambles: 56.2% (58th)
- One putts: 4.92 (157th).
- Rounds in the 60s: 15
- High round: 82 (11 over, rd 1 Made in Denmark)
- Low round: 65 (6 under, rd 2 Made in Denmark)
- Events played: 25
- Race to Dubai rank: 130th
- In the money: 10 times
- Missed the cut: 15 times
- Earnings: €174,382
- Top 10s: 2
- Best finish: 3rd Hong Kong Open
- Biggest cheque: €64,546 (Hong Kong)
- World ranking: 491st (End of 2013, 996th)