Wedge game key as Phelan shares Africa Open lead
Kevin Phelan after his great birdie at the seventh

Kevin Phelan after his great birdie at the seventh

When Kevin Phelan lost his card last year he explained that he had to get better with a wedge in his hands if he was to compete with the European Tour elite. Fast forward little more than three months and he's contending for the second week in a row, firing a five under 67 to claim a share of the first round lead in the Africa Open at a blustery East London Golf Club.

Last week, he finished a career best tied second in the Joburg Open but missed out on one of three places in The Open Championship at St Andrews because of his lowly world ranking.

While Andy Sullivan got the first Open place for winning the tournament, David Howell and Anthony Wall got the other two because they were also ranked higher than then world No 511 Phelan.

The Waterford man is now up to 368th and he's clearly reaping the rewards for hard on his game with coaches Mark McCumber in the US and Johnny Foster at home. As he said at the end of last season:

“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. 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.
“I had always thought of [Robert Karlsson] as a great ball striker, big guy and all that, which he is. 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.”

Phelan was superb with the short clubs in hand at East London with the wedge he cut around trees to less than 10 feet at the seventh, setting up his sixth birdie of the day and a third in a row to take the early lead.

"I was delighted with how I finished last week and it's nice to carry it on to this week," Phelan told European Tour Radio after missing just two greens in a controlled round. "Conditions were really different to last week but it's nice to play well.

"I am well used to playing in the wind but it is a completely different course to what it was in practice with an opposite wind blowing but it was good and my caddie did a great job with the yardages.

"I played quite aggressively and tried to get as close to the greens as I could. I think all my birdies came from around 50 or 60 yards."

Far from worrying about missing out on that place in The Open, Phelan is looking ahead and at 50th in the Race to Dubai, he's eased the pressure on his shoulders having lost his European Tour card last year.

"It would have been nice to get that Open place last week but I was happy with how I played and I will just try to keep plugging away," he said.

Starting on the back nine, Phelan dropped his only shot on his second hole, the par four 477 yard 11th.

But the 24 year old responded in emphatic fashion with six birdies, including three consecutively from the fifth, the last of which was completed when he escaped from behind the trees following a disappointing tee shot.

He shares the lead with England's Matt Ford, one stroke clear of South Africa's Neil Schietekat, Spain's Eduardo de la Riva and English trio Richard Bland, David Howell and John Parry,

Darren Clarke and Damien McGrane are back in the pack after level par 72s while Michael Hoey and Peter Lawrie have their work cut out to make the weekend after signing for five over 77s in the afternoon.