Phelan shows off growth in securing U.S. Open spot

Kevin Phelan tees off on the par-4 12th hole at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club en route to a 2-under 70 in his second round at the U.S. Open Sectional qualifier.

Kevin Phelan tees off on the par-4 12th hole at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club en route to a 2-under 70 in his second round at the U.S. Open Sectional qualifier.

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Josephine Phelan has a set of rusty, old clubs somewhere around the house, never getting much use out of a set her husband bought her many years ago.

No worries, her son seems to know how to use his just fine.

Her son – 22-year-old former North Florida star Kevin Phelan – gave her a lesson in stellar short-iron play and splendid putting in firing rounds of 65-70 at the U.S. Open Sectional qualifier at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club on Monday, securing his second trip to America's biggest Open in the process.

"Patience really helped me today," said Phelan, an Irishman who has played practice rounds with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Jim Furyk. "It's a tough finish; it's easy to make bogeys coming in. Just have to stay patient."

Spoken like a player who has endured a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where the course can eat the best in the world alive.

Phelan's golf education started in Waterford, Ireland, where he'd run over to the Waterford Castle Club – yes, it really has a castle on it – during the summer months with his younger brother, Brian. Josephine saw Kevin's competitive fire during those days, and it reminded her of her husband, John, a former professional squash player.

So, nearly a decade ago, when the Phelans decided to uproot and move to sunny Florida, Kevin knew his 19 handicap would be short-lived. He now had a reward for doing all of his school work: He could play golf 365 days a year.

"I didn't mind doing (school work) anymore because I could play (golf) every day," said Kevin.

"He always learned quickly," said Josephine.

Phelan was even able to learn from recent heartbreak, playing in Monday's sectional only four days removed from his North Florida team having missed out on match play at the NCAA Championship, ending his collegiate career prematurely.

"It was definitely extremely disappointing to miss out on match play; we played really well all year," said Phelan, who will finish his psychology degree next spring. "It was a great atmosphere for the team. (But) we learn from the bad moments. We learn from the triumphs. You learn from everything."

Despite making it to the 2010 U.S. Open, rounds of 83-75 sent him home early. But he was only 19 and still learning.

That learning process began with being a finalist for the 2011 European Walker Cup squad. While it didn't happen – "I put too much pressure on myself," he said – it motivated him. He'd make consecutive all-Atlantic Sun Conference teams, win his first collegiate tournament in 2013 and earn a spot on the 2013 Palmer Cup team that will compete against the U.S. later this week.

"Anytime you get a chance to represent a continent, it's pretty special," said Phelan, still downright giddy over his European Palmer Cup carry bag that was on full display during Monday's rounds.

But he has had one goal for the past five years: Make that Walker Cup squad. He won't turn pro in hopes that he'll garner a spot for this fall's biennial match against the U.S.

"He wants that spot so bad," said Josephine.

His play Monday could go a long way in earning some serious consideration, particularly an incredible save at the par-4 17th hole. With an aggressive second shot from a sidehill lie, the ball would bury in the sand left of the green, short-siding himself. His third would even make the rules official following the group mouth the words, "Wow." Phelan blasted the ball out, hit the rough and the ball funneled to less than 2 feet. Par save. A simple nod to his fan club at greenside, not realizing that the incredible up-and-down would be the eventual difference between he and second-place finisher John Hahn.

"I didn't teach him that," said John, a perennial joker.

"I did," quipped Josephine, smiling ear-to-ear, as only a mother can.

Maybe she's been secretly hitting the range after all.

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