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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Florida-based Irish teenager Kevin
Phelan is a name to remember

Kevin Phelan's first golfing memories involved taking the ferry across the Suir estuary to play golf at Waterford Castle, where his playing partners were his father, John - who'd been one of Ireland's top squash players in his day - and younger brother, Brian. The golfing excursions started when the young Kevin was just seven years of age.
These days, Phelan's environs are far removed from those fondly-remembered days of playing in wind and rain on the course built on an island in the estuary.
Nowadays, Phelan - who celebrated his 18th birthday last Saturday - is surrounded by history at the World Golf Village in St Augustine, Florida, where his family live . . . and his golfing future is one of great expectations after a season which saw him claim a number of prestige junior titles in his ever-increasing CV.
Playing off a plus-two handicap, Phelan has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and the highlight of his career (so far) came back in March when he won the prestigious American Junior Golf Association Mizuno tournament at the Innisbrook resort in Palm Harbor. Appropriately, the trophy he received for that terrific win was a piece of Waterford Crystal.
In fact, Phelan has amassed no fewer than 22 junior tournament titles since his family - father John, mother Josephine and younger brother Brian - moved to Florida five years ago and, with a number of colleges offering full scholarships for 2009, the teenager (who has dual Irish and American citizenship) has opted not to venture too far from home, taking up a placement next year at the University of North Florida.
"I was really lucky to be offered scholarships to a lot of really good colleges but I prefer to stay in Florida where I can play all year round. I've found a really good swing coach in Mike Blackburn, who is based in Jacksonville, and I wanted to stay close to him. Also, UNF have really good practice facilities . . . and their home course is TPC Sawgrass," said Phelan.
For the past few years, Kevin and brother Brian have acted as score bearers during the Players Championship at the famed course but his biggest junior win came on another tournament course at Innisbrook.
Back in March, Phelan produced rounds of 71-70-70 to win by five shots on the same course as Sean O'Hair had won the previous week's PODS Championship. Two weeks previously, Phelan had won the Florida Junior Tour's Amelia Island Plantation event.
Originally born in New York, where his father had played professional squash, the Phelan family returned home to Waterford when Kevin was three. He first started to play golf as a seven-year-old and, by 12, had a handicap of 19. On moving to Florida in the summer of 2003, Kevin quickly realised he would have to improve if he was to make any mark in the sport.
"There was just so much strong competition, so I practised practically every day . . . and now I'm a plus-two, although competitions are played off scratch."
Phelan's progress has been impressive, earning him a place on the Cannon Cup this year where the top boys' and girls' from east of the Mississippi play team golf against the top players from west of the river. It was, says Phelan, "a great honour" to play in that event which so often proves to be the forerunner to Walker Cup and Curtis Cup representative honours for many amateurs.
Indeed, Phelan - whom his mother describes as "a typical Irish teenager, very slow to boast about himself" - has proven himself to be a real team player, leading his school to the Florida State High School championships last year with a season's record of 62-0 that led to them being named "best team in state history".
During his high-school career, he made the All County, All Conference, All District, All Region and All State teams and was named MVP (Most Valuable Player) on the team.
"My goal now is to keep improving, and to play (against) the strongest fields I can get into - and to get really fit. I'm actually taking a few months off from playing tournaments (over the winter) to concentrate on my fitness and to work on my game so that I am ready for college golf next year. I suffered some injuries at the end of the summer from playing too many tournaments and from not having the level of fitness I need."
While Kevin has developed into the player he is today since moving Stateside - reaching 18th in the US national junior rankings this year - there is every likelihood he will attempt to return to Ireland to hone his games on links course. At one of the junior tournaments in Sawgrass this season, he got acquainted with Irish boys' international Michael Durcan who encouraged him to take in the West of Ireland at Rosses Point.
"I'd love to play the West next Easter, or if I can get into some of the other great events. It'd be a really good and different experience," he said. For sure, he had better pack the waterproofs.
+This article also appears in the print edition of the Irish Times