Vision Quest James McLean battles the effects of an old illness that hurt his putting

May 11, 2003

There's a lot of guys doing weird stuff to get one percent
better," James McLean said last week. He didn't define weird, but
Jesper Parnevik's eating volcanic sand came to mind, and there
used to be a tour pro who slept between sheets loaded with
magnets. But you had to give McLean a few weirdness points for
what he was doing in his New Orleans hotel room. Standing in
front of a dresser with a newspaper sitting on it, he covered his
left eye with his left hand and held an optical lens in front of
his right eye. Focusing on the paper's headline--BEIJING SARS
SCARE AFFECTING EMOTIONS--he pulled away the lens and refocused
on the words. He did this several times, focusing on ever-smaller
lines of type. He then switched to a much thicker lens.

"It's like biceps curls and extensions," the PGA Tour rookie
explained. "You strengthen the eye muscles by making the eyes
underfocus and overfocus. You can't do too many, though"--he
blinked and shook his head--"or you'll give yourself a headache."

Like the optician who fell into the lens-grinding machine, McLean
was making a spectacle of himself, but he had his reasons.
According to tests conducted in the U.S. and his native
Australia, his vision is slightly skewed--not enough to be
noticeable if he were a teacher or a bricklayer, but enough to
make putting a guessing game. "At 10 or 20 feet I perceive the
hole to be one hole farther right than it really is," he says. "I
think I'm lining up straight, but I'm not. I think I've hit a
perfect putt, but it burns the right edge." Last year, while
playing on the Buy.com tour, McLean endured a long putting slump,
which he blamed in part on his failure to do his eye exercises.
This season, amid all the excitement of jumping to the big Tour,
he again slacked off on his lens work. His putting quickly
deteriorated.

Is perfect eyesight a necessity on Tour? McLean can't say, but he
knows it's a big deal to certain players at the top of the money
list. "Tiger Woods had perfect eyesight," he says, "but he got
LASIK surgery so he could get to 20/10 or something crazy, to get
that eagle vision. Same thing with Aaron Baddeley. It's that
one-percent edge that everybody is trying to get."

McLean used to enjoy that edge. He had terrific eyesight when, as
a freshman at Minnesota, he won the 1998 NCAA championship. Two
years later, while playing in the Big Ten championship, he
collapsed on the Purdue golf course with a mysterious virus and
woke up in a hospital, hooked up to life-support systems. His
recovery took months, and his eyesight never made it all the way
back. He wore contact lenses for a while. ("Didn't like them," he
says.) He tried glasses. ("No good. I could see under them.") He
underwent LASIK surgery. ("That only partially corrected the
problem.") Finally, a doctor at the Australian Institute of Sport
gave him an optical exercise kit and told him to start pumping
refractive glass. After a week or two with no improvement
McLean's putts suddenly stopped burning the right edge and
started dropping.

So last Friday, while other golfers at the HP Classic of New
Orleans were window-shopping in the French Quarter or napping
before dinner, McLean was in his hotel room giving his eyes a
workout. "Focus...clear...refocus...." It helped that he had
putted well that afternoon, making several putts in the 10-to
15-foot range. Unfortunately, most of those putts had been for
par. Scores were low at English Turn, so McLean's rounds of 70-71
missed the cut line by two strokes. "Focus...clear...
refocus...." It was McLean's eighth missed cut of the season.

Hindsight, even without exercises, is 20/20. "I look at my year
so far, and it's very frustrating," McLean had said earlier in
the week. "I've worked really hard, but if anything my golf has
taken a step backward." To illustrate his frustration, he pointed
to his rank in various statistical categories. After New Orleans,
McLean was second only to John Daly in driving distance (307.3
yards), 48th in total driving, 41st in birdie average (four-plus
per round) and an impressive 20th in greens hit in regulation
(69.6%). On the other hand, he was 147th in scoring average
(72.23) and 152nd on the all-important money list ($90,340).
"I've been hitting 15 greens and shooting 72," McLean said. "Most
of the guys here, they hit 15 greens, they shoot 65."

In a perfect demonstration of his point, McLean played his first
16 holes at English Turn in five under par. He then bogeyed the
17th from a greenside bunker and double-bogeyed the 18th after
hitting his approach shot over the green. His girlfriend, Missy
Kretchmer, could only shake her head. "He usually plays his best
on the final hole," she said, "but lately he has had some bad
finishes. It drives him crazy."

Crazy is too strong a word, but it clearly eats at McLean that he
has been sensational with his long clubs and merely competent
with his short ones. "My inside-60-yards stats are putrid," he
said during a long practice session on the eve of the tournament,
"but that's a positive too. I'm this good with a C-plus short
game, so if I get to B-plus or A-minus, I'll contend every week
instead of struggling for cuts."

To that end McLean has been spending less time on the practice
range and more time on the putting green. The daunting task is
ensuring that he is aimed accurately. "I still trust my eyes, and
that's why I miss a lot of putts to the right." Asked if he
couldn't adjust by aiming slightly left, he shakes his head.
"Then I'd be double-guessing."

Those who have seen McLean at his best are convinced his putting
will come around. Missy's father, Bob, claims that he has seen
McLean, putting with a golf-ball-sized sphere on the end of a
shaft, roll four consecutive putts from 20 feet so that the balls
snuggled up against each other in a tight row. "I don't know
anybody who can do that with a regular putter," says Bob. "James
has such perfect form, and he is so accurate. When he gets his
eyesight back, he's going to be phenomenal."

McLean, who is a bit of a defeatist, is taking an
exercise-and-see attitude. The good news from New Orleans was
that a few of his missed putts burned the left edge of the
hole--evidence that his optical exercises have reduced the gap
between perception and reality. The bad news was that he again
showed a tendency, after a bad shot or two, to lose his focus.
"He has the talent, but he's not blessed with course-management
skills," said Lee Westwood, who played with McLean for two
rounds. "As good as James was playing, he should've been seven or
eight under with four holes left." Westwood added, "He'll learn
how to manage the course, and I like his aggressiveness."

Nobody can fault McLean's meal management. On Friday night, while
dining with Missy at Emeril Lagasse's restaurant, the slender
Aussie made short work of an appetizer of andouille and boudin
sausages. He followed with a thick steak and vegetables, leaving
nothing on his plate but a smear of gravy. ("Did you like it?"
Missy asked facetiously.) Around midnight the couple strolled
back to their hotel.

It had nothing to do with James's vision exercises, but Missy, a
bystander observed, was pretty easy on the eyes.

ROOKIE ON TOUR Part 4

JAMES McLEAN is a first-year pro on the PGA Tour. SI will check
in with him periodically during the 2003 season. Here's how he's
done so far.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL LINE OF SIGHT McLean exercises with different lenses to strengthen his eye muscles. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL GO FIGURE McLean is 20th in GIR but 147th in scoring.

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 --
HONDA 74-71 CUT --
BELLSOUTH 72-70-70-72 28TH $27,200
HERITAGE 72-72 CUT --
HOUSTON 70-74 CUT --
NEW ORLEANS 70-71 CUT --

WORLD RANK: 572nd 2003 MONEY LIST: 152nd

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

"I'm this good with a C-plus short game," McLean says, "so if I
get to B-plus or A-minus, I'll contend every week."

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)