Waterford’s Kevin Phelan - known as King Kev to his former amateur friends - produced one of the performances of the season to win his European Tour card at the Qualifying School Final Stage. His manger Chubby Chandler believes he could become Ireland’s answer to Luke Donald. It’s little wonder.
It’s the final hole of the final round of the European Tour Qualifying School’s final stage - hole No 108 of that nerve-shredding experience but the 252nd of Kevin Phelan’s Q-School odyssey.
Having survived scares to come through the first stage at Ribagolfe in Portugal and the second stage at windy El Saler just 10 days earlier, the 23-year old Waterford native is sitting on the nine-under par qualifying mark for the Top 25 and ties who will earn their places on the European Tour.
After a crucial two-putt birdie at the 15th got him inside the magic number, followed by two nerveless pars, the wiry Waterford man with the piercing blue eyes is feeling good. Maybe too good. He has to consciously slow himself down.
A cool northerly breeze is blowing into his face at PGA Catalunya Resort’s 463-yard 18th but Phelan cracks another good drive away, leaving himself 217 yards to the pin. A par-four will probably do but he’s thinking positively and goes for a pin.
Famously surgical with a hybrid club, big Stevie Byrne hands his man a three-iron equivalent and he hits a career shot that pitches at the stick, trickles past the edge of the cup and stops within six feet of the hole. There was no fisting pumping, just a nod of satisfaction to his experienced bagman. It was typical Phelan.
Almost inevitably after such a heroic performance, Ireland’s most self-effacing professional golfer pours the birdie putt home for a 69 and the 17th card. It’s a dream come true but there was nothing dream-like about the disciplined way he coped with the pressure. In the end, it all comes down to the work he’s done to make his routine second nature.
His coach, former Ryder Cup player and 10-time PGA Tour winner Mark McCumber, would have approved.
Now a respected teaching professional, McCumber has taken Phelan under his wing at his adopted Jacksonville home - he’s lived in Florida since he was 13 - and ingrained the importance of routine in the only Irishman ever to play in two US Opens as an amateur.
It’s a lesson McCumber learnt from former PGA Tour great Bert Yancey. Unhappy with inconsistent results in the early 1980s, McCumber went to see Yancey at Hinton Head. Yancey asked him to start hitting balls, then said nothing for an hour.
“I kept hitting one ball after another, and Bert just sat there behind him, not saying a word,” McCumber told Gary Smits of the Florida-Times Union. “Finally, I asked him what he thought. He told me, ‘on the 34th swing you waggled three times. On the 75th swing, you waggled once. Every other swing, you waggled twice.
“I learned how important the preshot routine was, and how it relates to good alignment and good rhythm. It changed my playing career from just a good player to one who won consistently.
“There are fundamentals that are the same for everyone, such as posture, alignment, grip, stance. But most teachers are selling and promoting a system that everyone should play a certain way. But you don’t make Allen Doyle swing like Jack Nicklaus or Hubert Green swing like Lee Trevino. There are Hall of Fame golfers who don’t have classic swings. What was classic about all of their swings was at address and impact, and they did the same thing every time.”
Phelan, who said goodbye to the amateur game in September when he won two points out of three on his Walker Cup debut for Great Britain and Ireland but ended up on the losing side, does not smash the ball a million miles.
It’s his mental strength that separates him from the rest. As the GUI’s national coach Neil Manchip says, “Kevin is a very self-reliant guy. He was very good at school, very good at organising himself. He’s a very impressive guy, a great guy to learn.
“He is one of the best putters I have ever seen. A great mid-range putter which is obviously great for turning pro. His ball-striking is coming on well and he has a good relationship with Mark McCumber.”
Apart from his intimate friends at Waterford Castle, nobody in Irish amateur golf had heard of Phelan until he holed a 30-yard flop shot as a University of North Florida freshman to eagle his final hole, card a 65 at McArthur Golf Club in Hobe Sound and qualify for the 2010 US Open.
He went to Pebble Beach, played practice rounds with Pádraig Harrington, Jim Furyk and Ricky Barnes and tried to do too much on the golf course, missing the cut comfortably.
By September he was an Irish international - following in the footsteps of his father John, who was a top Irish squash player before turning professional. Phelan Snr ended up coaching in the US, where his wife Josephine gave birth to Kevin in New York in 1990. Three years later the family, little brother Brian had arrived by this stage, headed home to Waterford. But within a decade they were back in the US at St Augustine in Florida.
Despite the fact that he has spent the last 10 years in the US and holds dual citizenship, Phelan still speaks with a distinct Waterford twang and feels very much an Irishman as his twitter handle - @KPhelanDeise - suggests.
He’s the youngest Irishman to hold a full European Tour card since Rory McIlroy, an occasional practice partner at the Bear’s Club in West Palm Beach, earned his stripes on invitations alone in 2007.
He’s stepping into the unknown now but armed with the weapons that got him where he is today, he’s happy to take his chances.
“I am really excited,” he said moments after earning his card. “It’s been a goal for a long time to play on the European Tour and I am delighted to have a chance now. I haven’t thought about any goals yet. The last few years I have just concentrated on preparing properly for tournaments and just playing well in each one rather than setting long term goals.
“I am delighted to have a tour card now but I am well aware that there is a lot of work to be done to stay there and keep the card for next year. I will just be focussing on the same things I have done all year, which are preparing well for each tournament and just trying to commit to each shot. That’s been my only goal so I think I will stick to that.
“I’ve been told a couple of times by some really good golfers - Pádraig Harrington told me and my coach Mark McCumber says it all the time - not to read what is written about me and I haven’t done that the last few years. I don’t pay attention to any expectations that are put on me, just the expectations I have of myself. I just want to concentrate on every shot, do my best and be well prepared. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.
“Mark [McCumber] is a mine of information, so I try to listen as much as I can. But Pádraig has always been very helpful with any questions I have. One of the things he stresses is the importance of the short game. I always had a good short game but over the last year and a half my ball striking has improved.
“I hit a lot more greens and I have had to practice my short game more to keep it up to scratch because I don’t have to, or haven’ recently, had to chip as much on the course. That’s what he emphasised the most.”
Phelan was back in the headlines this summer when he qualified for the US Open again and did what McIlroy and Graeme McDowell couldn’t do - he made the cut at Merion on one of the toughest US Open set ups in years.
“I’ve played with him a bit of late at the Bear’s Club,” McIlroy said recently.“He did really well at the Walker Cup and we saw what he did at the US Open this year making the cut.
“My best advice to him would be to just go out and play. Kevin has a completely different game to me. He plays much like Francesco Molinari in that he’s not the longest but it’s mostly down the middle while his short game is very good.
“The big aspect of playing out here on the tour is to play to your strengths and making sure you don’t neglect them by trying to bring your weaknesses up to the same level. So if I was to offer him any advice and that would be to concentrate on strengths as that is what got you here in the first place, and gradually bit by bit try and get the rest of your game to that level.”
McDowell was equally impressed by the way Phelan came through Q-School and kept his advice simple.
“If you are good enough to be here, you are good enough to compete out here and just don’t go changing too much,” he said.
His success has come as no surprised to his former Munster foursome partner, Alan Thomas.
“It’s his attitude more than anything,” Thomas says. “Nothing seems to faze him at all. I’ve played Interpros with him for the last two years against a lot of the top guys Dermot, Harry, Reeve, Richie - none of them have the same attitude as him. Mentally he is just so superior. He doesn’t let anything get to him and just takes it one shot at a time.
“He is like most guys who don’t hit the ball a long way. He is straight. He has two rescue clubs in the bag and he hits them closer than I hit my wedges. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he won within three or four years.”
Another Munster team mate, Niall Gorey, calls Phelan “unflappable” and “a Luke Donald replica” while Walker Cup captain Nigel Edwards opts for the “silent assassin” tag.
“I was really impressed with the way he’s finished off every stage of tour school,” says manager Chubby Chandler. “He’s shown he has big balls !! I would be very surprised if he didn’t take most of his opportunities and think he will turn out to be a real good player in the Luke Donald mould.”
High praise indeed for the crown prince they call King Kev. They say getting through Q-School is the easy bit but whatever the challenge, Phelan appears to have the head to go with the heart.
Few know Kevin Phelan as well as his coach, McCumber.
“One of Kevin’s big strengths is that he has always played a more mature game than his age suggests. He has an old spirit and I mean that as a compliment.
“Sometimes I wonder if he was listening to me but boy was he listening. I can give him a drill or two and two weeks later, it is already ingrained. It’s pretty amazing to make it through the first stage of Q-School on the number, the second stage on the number and to came to the last hole in the finals where if you make bogey you miss, and he makes birdie.
“He has proven that he can play under pressure too, which is a very nice quality for someone who wants to play golf for a living. You never know how a rookie will do but in my experience, the signs are very good indeed.
“What he works on the hardest is routine. Never let the routine vary, never let the process vary. Not event the best players in the world can control the golf ball all the time. You can hit it a little thin, hit it a little heavy, push it or pull it. You can’t control that.
“But what you can control is the process and the routine and all your satisfaction and your confidence comes from knowing, ‘I did all I could do, I did all I could do.’ Kevin has bought into that and I think that’s what great players do.
“His ball striking has improved immensely. He has become a very good iron player. He keeps the ball in play off the tee, he hasn’t got awesome length but he will get longer as he fills out and gets stronger and matures. And he has proved that he can play. He went up to Merion for the US Open, one of the hardest courses in the world, and showed what he has got by making the cut. That was a huge deal.
“He is very self-reliant. He doesn’t have rabbit ears either, as I like to say. He doesn’t listen to a lot of people and doesn’t need to hang around with a lot of people. He is a very, very good putter but has the maturity to continue working hard on his short game. Rather than worry about not being a power hitter, as of yet, he just goes with what he has. That’s the best way to play golf.
“I still believe one of the strongest assets he has is his personality. It’s just perfect for golf. I think his future is very, very bright.”
[Mark McCumber won 10 times on the PGA Tour as well as the 1988 World Cup with Ben Crenshaw at Royal Melbourne. He represented the US in the 1989 Ryder Cup and twice finished second in majors, the 1989 US Open and the 1996 Open Championship]