Officially he’s playing in his first major as an American from St Augustine in Florida. But proud Waterford amateur Kevin Phelan will be announced as a representative of Ireland when he steps up to hit his first tee shot at Pebble Beach on Thursday afternoon.
As a fine sea mist sprinkled the competitors during the first official practice round yesterday, the 19-year old dream qualifier cut such a waif-like figure as he tried to get past security at the practice putting green that he was asked if he was a player.
A resident in Jacksonville and one of the leading players on the golf team at the University of North Florida, dual-citizen Phelan has been living on cloud nine since he holed a flop shot for an eagle three on the final hole at McArthur Golf Club in Hobe Sound eight days ago and closed with a 65 to finish joint first in the 36-hole sectional qualifying race for three spots here this week.
It’s the stuff of dreams but Phelan, the New York born son of former Irish international squash player John, looked as cool as the morning air as he teed it up alongside former US Open champion Jim Furyk and the big-hitting sensation Ricky Barnes for his first official practice round.
The teenager nervelessly drilled a fairway wood down straight down the fairway, knocked his second shot inside Barnes’ effort from the rough and two putted comfortably for an opening par as Furyk was forced to chip up from short of the green.
Mark that one down as a minor victory for Ireland and Waterford, for Phelan is proud of his Irish roots and wants to play under the tricolour this week.
“It’s great to be here and the course is absolutely unbelievable,” Phelan said before his round. “I am just trying to get used to being out here and get comfortable for Thursday.
“I lived in Waterford and I still consider myself a Waterford man, definitely. I tried to get them to change my country to Ireland in the draw but I don’t know if they can do that. But they will definitely announce me as being from Ireland on the first tee, so at least I have that.
“I’ve already played one round and I will play three more. It’s a great course and the views are unbelievable. I will just try to stick to the golf instead of looking at the beach all the time.”
Drawn with unheralded qualifiers Mark Silvers and Jason Preeo for the first two days, Phelan is determined to go out and enjoy himself no matter what happens.
“I am not sure how I am going to stack up against these guys,” said Phelan, who is majoring in Business Management at the University of North Florida. “I am just going to go out and play my best and enjoy it. We will see how it goes. I’d like to finish college and if I can keep getting better I’d like to turn pro after that.”
A plus two handicapper, Phelan moved back to Ireland with his family when he was three and played junior golf at Waterford Castle before moving back to Florida when he was 12.
He played little in GUI events before returning to the US though he did return to play in the 2007 Irish Boys Close.
Considering he was a 19 handicapper when he settled in Jacksonville, his presence at Pebble Beach this week is a testament to his sporting genes.
His father John, 46, hails from Waterford city, “up by Walsh Park” and represented Ireland at junior and senior level at squash.
John said: “There’s no greater honour than to represent you country. I was very proud to get the chance to play for Ireland.”
He became a squash professional, initially working in Germany before moving to the United States with his close friend, Eoin O’Neill.
“I went to New York and Eoin to San Francisco,” explained Phelan Snr, who ran The Reginald Restaurant and Bar in Waterford City for eight years before selling up and moving to the Florida sun. “After the kids were born, we decided to go home and rear them in Ireland.”
As for his son’s improvement from 19 handicap when they left for America to plus two today, he joked: “It’s the weather. At home, any time you’ve a good day, you always take advantage of it and go out and play. Well, every day is sunny in Florida, so we literally played every day.”
Phelan Snr now owns a bar-restaurant in Jacksonville and his son will not be short of help with his great sporting adventure at Pebble Beach.
Family friend Mark McCumber, the former PGA Tour player and frequent Irish Open visitor in his day, will be mentoring him.
And McCumber’s son Tyler, a friend since their days at Nease High School in Jacksonville, will be carrying the bag.
That explains the dream practice round with Furyk.
“Well, Mr McCumber knows Furyk and my college coach knows him as well as he lives in Jacksonville and that’s how it came about,” Kevin explained. “I am trying to get a practice round with Padraig Harrington as well because I know Bob Rotella a bit and he is going to try and set that up tonight.”
And with that he disappeared with Furyk and Barnes into the Monterey mist to begin a great golfing adventure.