Nolan is ready for challenge

 

The time for his destiny is closing in, but Keith Nolan has no fears. A little over six weeks ago, Nolan survived tour school - an assignment known as a "torture chamber" to anyone who has to endure it - but, in the greater context, that was a mere skirmish, and next week, two days after his 27th birthday, the real battle commences when he revisits the US PGA Tour.

"I've got to be realistic, my first goal has to be to keep my card," said Nolan. Although the Tour tees off this week with the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii and won't finish until the AmEx WGC event in Valderrama in the second week of November, Nolan's season doesn't kickstart until next week's Sony Open at the Waialae Country Club in Honolulu.

It is Nolan's second coming. Two years ago, as a raw rookie just out of amateur golf, he failed to retain his tour card on the toughest battleground in world golf. His best finish that season was tied-47th in the Houston Open. "I know I'm better prepared this time," said Nolan. Indeed, a year spent on the Nike Tour as a non-exempt member has toughened him mentally and, crucially, his golf game has also developed to the point where he isn't intimidated by putting his "A-Game" up against that of more seasoned campaigners.

Since regaining his tour card, Nolan has kept in shape and played golf every day - with the notable exception of Christmas Day - in preparation for the upcoming season. Some of it has been of the social nature at the Green Meadows club in Knoxville where he is a member, but the game is in good shape. "I am playing pretty good," he remarked, indication enough of his current well-being.

The first few weeks of his season have been mapped out. Nolan's debut event will be in Hawaii but he is unlikely to get into either of the next two events - although he will be in Phoenix at the time of the Phoenix Open to get in some work with his club sponsors Ping, who are based there - and his next competitive outing is likely to be the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and then the following week's Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in California.

Nolan is convinced he has learned a great deal in the past two years. For instance, the hassle and logistics of organising flights and hotels aren't a problem. "This time round I know where I'm going so it should be easier - and it is also a help that I'll be playing courses that I know. It means that I don't have to cram as much into the Mondays and Tuesdays of a tournament week." Although the US Tour will be his home, Nolan is also intent on making the trip back for the Murphy's Irish Open at Ballybunion in June, assuming he receives a sponsor's invite, and possibly the following week's Smurfit European Open at The K Club. "At present, I can't actually travel outside of the United States because I'm in the middle of the process to obtaining my green card," explained Nolan, who is married to Yolanda, a fellow graduate of East Tennessee. "I'm genuinely hoping that I get back for the Irish Open and, if I get off to a good start over here, I'm also hoping that I get to play in the European Open too."

However, the next month or so is the real priority and it would be a significant fillip to Nolan if he can start his campaign in a similar style to the way he finished his Nike Tour season last year when he made seven straight cuts and had two top 10 finishes in his last four events.

So, it is with confidence that Nolan heads into the new season, his third as a professional and second on the full tour. Apart from retaining his card, which is his number one target, and the possible bonus of actually winning a tournament, is there anything else he would like to accomplish as he sets out in the New Year with hope? "Actually, I would love the chance to represent an Irish course over here. I had a two-year attachment with The Ridges, a facility about one and a half hours drive from Knoxville where I live, but that has now finished. It'd It would be really nice to have an Irish attachment."

Whatever happens, Nolan feels he is older and wiser this time round as he sets out on his latest crusade. The lessons from his rookie year have been learned. An exciting year lies ahead.