Baby Steps Little by little, our man learns what must be done--on and off the course--if he hopes to succeed

March 17, 2003

The lesson starts with an oral report from the student. "My
irons were O.K. last week," says James McLean, raking a ball
toward his feet with a six-iron, "but everything was kind of a
punch. Pretty steep divots, just hitting punches." ¶ "Steering
it?" ¶ McLean nods. "Hit my wedges pretty well. Putted well." ¶
Michael Hunt, a trim, purposeful man in pleated slacks and a
polo shirt, is seated at a computer console. With a few
practiced clicks and drags of a mouse, he draws a simple
template on a video he has just recorded of McLean's swing. A
box around the golfer's head. Straight red lines from his hips
to the ground, parallel to his legs. ¶ "My hands are high again,"
says McLean, watching his swing on a monitor. He is already
sweating. The garage-style door of the teaching bay is open, but
there is little air movement out on the range.

It's Tuesday morning, March 4, in Miami, and McLean, jet-lagged
from his flight from Arizona, is fighting off yawns. Smiles, on
the other hand, he spends freely. Memories of his 18th-place
finish at the Chrysler Classic of Tucson are as fresh as a
Florida orange.

"You should feel good," says Hunt, studying McLean's backswing in
stop action. "You shot eight under on the weekend with your C
game."

There isn't a hint of sarcasm in the teacher's voice. Hunt knows
that a golfer's A game is as elusive as a rainbow, as fragile as
a snowflake. He knows, as well, that McLean tends to obsess over
his perceived shortcomings. When they started working together 18
months ago, the young Australian gave Hunt a list of Things I
Feel I Do Wrong. The list, which had 17 items along the lines of
"right elbow doesn't fold enough" and "chin gets too close to
chest," told Hunt two things: McLean is a keen student of the
golf swing, and he can be a self-defeating perfectionist.

But if perfection is unattainable, improvement is not. There's
nary a pro, other than perhaps Bruce Lietzke, who has made it on
Tour without spending countless hours with a swing coach and
video gear. Today, with only two days to tune up for the Ford
Championship at Doral, McLean sees a couple of things that need
fixing. His takeaway, he tells Hunt, is too steep, too "lifty."
At the top of his backswing the club is slightly "laid off."
There's a tiny rerouting with the hands, producing a change in
swing plane as the club starts back down.

Hunt agrees with McLean's analysis and makes a few observations
of his own. The adjustment phase of the lesson takes less than 10
minutes. Hunt guides McLean into the desired position at the top
of the swing. "Hold that," he says. On his own McLean swings the
club back and holds...and holds...and holds. Hunt nods.
"You've got to do 30 of these a night in the mirror," he says.

McLean hits a few balls off the mat, freezing his swing halfway
back to check the position, before completing the swing with a
satisfying whack of club against ball. He then sits by Hunt to
check the results on video. The camera, positioned behind the
ball, shows McLean's club going back, up and then freezing at the
top, exactly parallel to his target line. "Oh, that's so much
better," McLean says. "It looks smooth, where before...." He
wiggles his hands over his right shoulder. "Now it's only moving
in that circle."

End of lesson. But not really, because for McLean, as for most
Tour rookies, the swing isn't really the thing. What counts is
course savvy and life management. It's a hundred little
things--from how much sleep he gets to how well he learns the
rule book--that will determine whether he earns enough to keep
his card next year. "I do more coaching than teaching," Hunt says
later, watching McLean play a practice round at Doral. "It's
tough your first year on Tour. Everything's new. Everything's a
challenge."

The same point is made the next day at lunch by Hunt's boss, Jim
McLean, the well-known swing swami and owner of the Jim McLean
Golf School at Doral. The two McLeans are not related, but the
elder provided his services gratis in 2001 after the youngster
turned pro. ("I liked his name," Jim explains.) The teacher still
reviews James's videos.

"When James came to me I saw immediately that he was special,"
McLean says. "Not a good putter or chipper, but very gifted. He
stayed at my home for 20 days, and my kids loved him. Nicest guy
in the world. But when we played golf together he'd hit a couple
of bad shots and throw up his hands." James, in other words,
resembles Tom Weiskopf, the stormy Ohioan with the smooth swing
who won the 1973 British Open and finished second four times at
the Masters but couldn't find happiness until he ditched his
clubs and turned to course design.

"When Tour players have a problem," Jim McLean continues, "they
always want it to be their swing. They don't want it to be their
mind or how they manage their life. But the way I see it, that's
half the ball game."

That's especially true for a player like James, who can look like
Tiger Woods one moment and like a man lost in the woods the next.
"In my eyes he can be as good as he wants to be," says Hunt. "He
has all the tools. But first"--he grimaces--"we've got to
eliminate all the swing thoughts."

In McLean's case that could require a general anesthetic. In the
second round of the Ford Championship he puts himself in position
to make the cut with birdies on his 10th and 12th holes, but a
bogey two holes later touches off a string of loose shots. McLean
staggers in with a two-over-par 74. Frustrated and slightly
frantic, he signs his scorecard and hustles over to the practice
range, where he begins beating balls. "That's so steep," he
mutters, watching shot after shot bank to the right. "Miserable,"
he groans, having overcompensated with a rope hook. Hanging his
head, McLean notices a final insult: He has gotten duck poop on
the left leg of his white pants.

His girlfriend, Missy Kretchmer, has been watching from a plastic
chair. She says, "It's a cruel, cruel world, isn't it, dear?"

"It is right now," McLean replies. He takes another ferocious
whack with his driver and hits a monster ball that whistles
through the golden light of sunset toward the JIM MCLEAN GOLF
SCHOOL sign at the far end of the range. The sign, which James
probably doesn't even see, advertises the one ironic benefit of
his missing the cut at Doral: He now has the entire weekend to
work on his swing.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES FLORIDA SWING Dancing in Little Havana, Missy and James loved Miami, even though James missed the cut. FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES TEACHING AIDS Hunt (top, left) used a variety of gizmos to record and dissect McLean's swing, but also took club in hand to demonstrate what it all meant (right).

ROOKIE ON TOUR Part 3

JAMES MCLEAN is a first-year pro on the PGA Tour. SI will check
in with him periodically during the 2003 season.

TOURNAMENT SCORES FINISH MONEY

SONY 72--75 Cut --
PHOENIX 65-72-68-68 32nd $22,640
HOPE 75-68-69-70 Cut --
BUICK 76--73 Cut --
TUCSON 71-70-68-68 18th $40,500
DORAL 73--74 Cut --

WORLD RANK: 230th 2003 MONEY LIST: 133rd

Go to SI.com to read previous installments of Rookie on Tour.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)