Kevin Phelan may like to hit the ball 25 yards further but it’s the six inches between his ears which concern the new Mount Juliet touring professional more that his driving distance.
Approaching the end of his second full season on the European Tour, the Waterford man may have to go to the European Tour Qualifying School to improve his status for 2016.
Whatever happens, he will still have more starts than he did this year and having come within touching distance of victory twice early in the season — he was second in the Joburg Open and third in the Trophée Hassan II in Morocco — he’s feeling positive about the future.
A rash of missed cuts since the end of August has left the 24-year old just outside the crucial Top 110 in the Race to Dubai with 183,564 earned from 19 starts.
It’s not bad but while he’s hoping he can produce the big finish he needs to the Portugal Masters this week to avoid the dreaded trip to PGA Catalunya Resort for the Q-School finals, he’s not overly concerned.
“At worst, I will have a little better category than I did last year,” Phelan said in the plush surroundings of a soon to be refurbished Mount Juliet, where he is now attached.
“Then I will go to Tour School and give that a go.”
A naturaly positive person, Phelan puts as much work into his mental game as he does his technique.
“You definitely have to keep reminding yourself to stay positive. I am quite lucky I have good people around me who pump me up quite a lot,” Phelan explained.
“It’s tough at times but I would much rather play pretty well and feel like my game is good and miss a few cuts than just play crap and know I am playing crap.
“I am playing alright and I feel like the next tournament I play, I will have quite a good chance. That’s always a nice feeling.”
Managing his practice and travel so that he is physically fresh is key for Phelan, whose game is based around precision, good wedge play and putting.
“When I am home I will come here to Mount Juliet a good bit because it has one of the best ranges to practice wedges,” he said.
“The difference between my good weeks and bad weeks is purely the short game — which is 150 and in. So it’s all about being more efficient there.
“It’s what I’ve noticed with all the better players I have played with, they are just more efficient and don’t waste as many shots.
“You think the lads are hitting these high, towering four-irons and holing 40 foot putts, that’s just not the way it is. They give themselves plenty of chances and are tidy around the greens.”
Phelan wants to model himself more on the likes of Zach Johnson or Jim Furyk than Rory McIlroy, Jason Day or even former junior golf rival Jordan Spieth, who is 6’ 1” and built to match.
“I asked my caddie, ‘Who is the best caddie on tour?’ and he though for a while and said, ‘Jim Furyk.’
“Although (Mike) Fluff Cowan is right there and he’s a great caddie, Furyk almost self-caddies. He knows exactly what he is doing, manages his game really well and manages his time really well. He does it his way.
“It is encouraging to see those types of players doing as well as they do because there is so much made of the bombers in the modern game.
“My style of play is more similar to Johnson and Furyk and seeing what these guys do to prepare for tournaments is a big help.”
World No 1 Spieth is an inspiration to him as a fearless thinker rather than a striker, a driver or a putter.
“The one thing Spieth does outstandingly well is thinking. He just seems to think about what he wants to do all the time,” Phelan said.
“There is no thought of making a mistake. He is just very positive and obviously clinical under pressure.
“I studied psychology in the States and I put a good bit into that. It’s just as important, if not more important.
“For example, I only played with Spieth once and it was in the last round of a college tournament at Isleworth in Florida and he had a four or five shot lead going out in the last round.
“It’s a really hard course — long, tough with a lot of elevated greens with sharp edges, the pins were tough — and he just went for everything.
“He didn’t back away from anything and just shot five or six under and won by seven or eight shots.”
They also say that Spieth is good at every aspect of the game and not just outstanding on one.
That’s Phelan’s goal too and as he works to take his game to the next level and wait for his break.
Having seen Thorbjorn Olesen go from losing his card to winning the Alfred Dunhill Links in the space of a few days, he wants to be ready when his chance arrives.
“It is mad how it can change so quickly,” said Phelan, who insists he wants it all. “I’ve not got glaring strengths or weaknesses… I just want to get really good at everything.
With his attachment to a world class resort such as Mount Juliet, he’s certainly started on the right foot.
Kevin Phelan has seen a lot of the top talent in Europe and the US up close over the past few years.
But when asked who he sees as a star in waiting, he had no hesitation — England’s Eddie Pepperell.
“He has just improved every year,” Phelan said.
“I have known him since the end of his amateur and international career. He doesn’t waste any time practising. He does what he needs to do and leaves it. He’s very efficient and he’s done very well.” Pepperell, 24, was 76th in the Race to Dubai in 2013, 49th in 2014 and looks to be heading for a top 30 position this year.
He’s also made the Top 100 in the world with ease.
As for the Irish crop, the five Walker Cup players are all very talented but he has high praise for fellow Waterford man Gary Hurley. “Gary is very good,” he said. “I played foursomes with him in the Palmer Cup. Technically excellent and mentally for most amateurs turing pro, he’s about as good as I have seen.”
‘The amateurs are professional amateurs’
If you’ve ever wondered why Ireland is producing so many top young players the answer is clear — professionalism.
The High Performance programmes put in place by the GUI and the ILGU have helped the best become even better.
With Leona Maguire flying high as world No 1 and Cormac Sharvin and Jack Hume leading a new generation of amateur stars now that their Walker Cup team mates Gary Hurley, Paul Dunne and Gavin Moynihan have turned pro, Ireland’s amateur bodies have been proactive in adding a layer of professionalism to the amateur game.
“It’s amazing,” Kevin Phelan says of the new breed of amateurs. “It just shows the professionalism in amateur golf nowadays. It’s all changed in the last five to 10 years.
“A lot of amateurs have tour coaches from the time they are 14, 15. The unions do a great job supporting players and giving them access to what they need.
“When you see your friends do well at an early age in professional tournaments, you think, ‘I can beat him and he’s beaten all the rest.’
“The amateurs are professional amateurs. A lot of them are full-time golfers and they have known what they want to do since they were 12 and 13. With the exposure that golf gets now, players are committed at an early age.”
Paul Dunne might have started his professional career like a proverbial rocket but Kevin Phelan has words of encouragement for the other Irish rookies who played such a key role in this year’s Walker Cup win over the US.
“I think the biggest thing they need to learn is that the game is the same. Golf is exactly the same,” Phelan said of the challenges facing Dunne, Gary Hurley or Gavin Moynihan in the pro ranks.
“The hole isn’t any smaller. The holes aren’t different. You just have to stick to doing the same things and make the bigger adjustments off the course.
“They all have management companies that take care of what needs to be taken care of and those people are important at the start. But it is all about managing your time. Efficiency is everything.
“As an amateur, you are always with a team and told when to meet at the airport and what time you are eating dinner. As a professional, I found it strange having to tell my caddie where to meet me and at what time.
“The boys are self-reliant and excellent at that but it is harder when you are on your own. There are a lot of distractions out there.”
Doing too much is almost worse that doing too little.
“It’s easy to keep hitting balls, for example,” Phelan explained.
“In Germany a few weeks ago, the facilities were so good you could have been there all day (on the practice areas). It is easy to do too much.”
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