Waterford Castle’s Kevin Phelan has one big ambition this year — to play Walker Cup.
But after sensationally qualifying for US Open for the second time in four years by topping his sectional Qualifier on Monday, the 22-year old Florida resident believes he can best achieve that target by resisting the temptations that caused him to missed the cut after rounds of 83 and 75 at Pebble Beach in 2010.
“I was only 19 then and I definitely have a lot more experience now,” he said as he prepared to hook up with West Waterford’s Gary Hurley in the European team for this week’s Palmer Cup showdown with the United States at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware.
“I think the experience of playing at Pebble Beach has definitely helped me since then. I learned a lot that week about staying patient.”
Thanks to his coach Mark McCumber, Phelan was able to arrange practice rounds with Ricky Barnes and major winners Jim Furyk, Pádraig Harrington, Trevor Immelman, Retief Goosen and Ben Curtis at Pebble Beach.
But while he listened to their advice, he hasn’t learned to put it into practice until recently.
“Everyone there told me to stay patient and not get over aggressive,” said the world amateur No 39, who hopes to turn professional and try the Q-School on both sides of the pond later this year.
“But I was a bit too eager and aimed at too many flags. I’ve learnt my lesson from that and will play more conservatively at Merion this time and just take it one shot at a time.”
Phelan come a long way since he moved to the US with his family (father John is a former professional squash player) when he was a 10 year old playing off 19.
Now off plus four, he’s just finished college at North Florida, hopes to receive his psychology degree next year and is arguably Ireland’s brightest amateur prospect
His play in Monday’s Sectional Qualifier at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Bradenton was nothing short of stunning as he opened with a seven under 65 and followed that with a 70 to claim the first of three spots on offer for the 54-strong field on nine under par.
“I feel great about it now,” he said with a chuckle. “I played really well in the first round and holed a lot of putts which gave me a really good chance in the second round.
“I didn’t hole as many putts but I did what was necessary. Yes, I bogeyed the 16th and 18th in the afternoon and made a really good par from a plugged lie on the 17th. But the last four holes were three of the fours toughest on the course and they were all playing into the wind.
“And I had given myself a bit of leeway because birdied 14th and 15th to be four under for the round so it meant I had something in the bank. It worked out well.”
Phelan was bitterly disappointed not to make the 2011 Walker Cup side but having played for captain Nigel Edwards in the GB&I side in last year’s St Andrews Trophy at Portmarnock, he’s regarded as a hot tip to make the Walker side this time around.
However, focussing too much on making the trip to the National Golf Links of America on Long Island in September is a mistake he’s keen to avoid.
And while he’s inspired by Rory McIlroy’s feats, he hopes to take a leaf out of the book of “role model” and 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell and patiently plot his way through Merion and a busy summer and hope he’s done enough to merit a call up.
“Last time I put too much pressure on myself to make the team so I learned from that,” he said. “And at Pebble Beach I set myself the target of making the cut and put too much pressure on myself.
“I’ll just set myself the goal of trying to shoot the lowest score I can at Merion without worrying about positions or making a cut. I’ll just go out and play the game and enjoy it for what it is.”