Kevin Phelan has packed just about everything into his first 18 months as professional bar a win. But given his progress since he took the plunge after the 2013 Walker Cup, the touring professional for Mount Juliet will soon be one of Ireland’s established tour stars.
The 24-year old’s third place finish in the Trophée Hassan II in Morocco on Sunday brought with it a tinge of disappointment that he couldn’t get that long-awaited maiden victory.
But as he looks forward to the European Tour spring and summer on the back of three Top-3 finishes in his last seven starts — Hong Kong last October and Joburg and Morocco this year — Waterford man could not feet more excited about his game.
Were it not for the fact that he lost the card he won so brilliantly at the Q-School at the end of 2013, Phelan would have no worries whatsoever.
But even accounting for that fact that he failed to win it back last November and is unsure of his schedule due to his tenuous Category 17 status, he’s playing well and growing in confidence all the time.
“I am very happy with how I am playing at the moment,” said Phelan, who has moved up more than 200 places to 304th in the world this year. “And it was great to play well around that course - quite a tricky course were you have to manage your game really well.”
Phelan is becoming something of a expert at managing his game and his emotions and he is now 43rd in the Race to Dubai with €156,034 after earning €61,250 on Sunday.
He made just over €174,000 from 26 starts last year and still lost his card by around €60,000. But even though he’s not sure now many starts he will get this year, he knows he’s on the right track.
“I didn't really know which tour to play this year between Challenge and the European Tour,” he said at the finish Sunday, where he closed with a fourth successive 70 to finish two shots behind Richie Ramsay. “With two good finishes I will just try to play as many on the big tour as I can. I had two Top-10s in all of last year and I've had two Top-5s already this year. So it is nice to get off to a good start and build on it.”
One more big finish will secure Phelan’s tour card but it’s only as a Top 10 finisher in Morocco that he gets a start in the Shenzhen International in China when the European Tour resumes after the Masters.
He’ll use the two-week break to head back to Florida to see his coach Mark McCumber, who now works in tandem with Ulsterman Johnny Foster.
But what pleases Phelan as much as his form or the fact that his coaches are “on the same page” is the fact that he’s adapted to tour life and found of way of making things work.
“I’ve gotten a good feel for what I have to do to prepare,” Phelan explained yesterday. “It took a while to figure out but I have a pretty good grasp on it and what to do to jeep improving. I’m delighted about that.
“For instance, I am down at practice ground earlier the last three or four months. If there is one, I’m usually on the first bus to the course and I get out playing before everyone gets there.
“There can be lots of people around early in the week and it’s tough to do some of my drills that require a bit of space, such as pace putting. It’s almost impossible to do in the middle of the day due to lack of space. So I go out with my caddie and get a good feel for the course, especially in places like South Africa, where there are big changes in altitude.”
Small details make all the difference and it probably helped that his full time caddie, Bostonian Mark Mazo, caddied for Rhys Davies when he won in Morocco in 2010.
Phelan is quiet and unassuming and not given to big predictions. Still, you sense that he quite fancies the idea of pitching up at Royal County Down, where his disciplined style could pay dividends in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
“I played there in the Interpros when Munster won there in 2012,” Phelan recalls. “Six rounds in three days and a couple of practice rounds too, so I’ve had a few spins around it and absolutely loved it.
“It’s as good a links course as I have played din terms of condition and design is brilliant. I usually get up more for the really hard courses. I really like the challenge and Royal County Down really is tough, especial when it is windy.
“I think it adds to a tournament when it is tougher and a little bit tricky at times. You have to think a bit more about strategy and don’t necessarily have to get up on every tee with a driver and rip it.”
Given his tour category, Phelan knows he can’t be choosey when it comes to picking his events. So while an ideal world, he’d be better on shorter, more technical courses, it doesn’t always work out that way.
“I have found that it doesn’t matter what course I am on, if I am playing well,” he says. “Even if on paper it doesn’t suit me, I will do well if I'm playing well. That’s a lot better than playing poorly on a course that does suit me.”
Still, he’d love to improve his grip it and rip it game.
“That’s something I have to get better because there are times when you just have to grab the driver on the courses we play,” he says. "But I really enjoy it when there is more strategy involved.”
Holing more putts never goes astray and while that didn’t work out for him over the last two rounds in Morocco, he’s plotting his way through the hazards of tour life very nicely indeed.