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Rookie On Tour PART SIX: An injury brings James McLean's year to an inglorious end

Sept. 22, 2003
Sept. 22, 2003

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Sept. 22, 2003

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Rookie On Tour PART SIX: An injury brings James McLean's year to an inglorious end

When we last saw James McLean, it was the day before the Buick
Open in late July, and he was beating balls on the practice
range, inspired by a mantra that had recently been adopted by
every PGA Tour rookie: "If Ben can do it, I can do it." That
would be Ben Curtis, a fellow freshman who two weeks earlier had
shaken up the sports world by winning golf's oldest championship
on his first try. "I played with him in the final round at Q
school, and he got his card a shot inside the number," McLean
said as he stood idly massaging his sore right wrist on the
practice tee at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand
Blanc, Mich. "Then he struggled all year, like I have. Now here
he is, the British Open champion." McLean had more appreciation
than most for what Curtis had accomplished because of their
parallel experiences as rookies.

This is an article from the Sept. 22, 2003 issue

Before June 29, when he came in 27th at the FedEx in Memphis,
Curtis had no top 30 finishes and was 173rd on the money list, 11
spots behind McLean. A month later, after finishing 13th at the
Western Open and winning at Royal St. George's, Curtis was
roughly $1.2 million richer and had risen to 22nd on the money
list. McLean, in that same span, missed four cuts and finished
31st at the B.C. Open, pocketing only $16,650 and falling to a
season-worst 176th in earnings. He admitted to a little envy. "It
was Ben who won a major, not me. He's set for life, whereas my
future is still uncertain," McLean said with a shrug. "That's how
it is."

For McLean there will not be the kind of fairy-tale ending that
Curtis has enjoyed. During the first round of the Buick, McLean
winced his way to an 80, his worst score of the season. The wrist
that had been bothering him on and off since the Houston Open in
May finally gave out. "It hurts right at the top of the swing and
right at the bottom," he said. "I was actually scared to take
divots out there." As the summer wore on and the wrist
alternately suffered soreness (bad) and caused numbness in his
hand (worse), McLean continued to soldier on, largely cutting out
practice to spare his fragile appendage. "When it started
hurting, my attitude was, I've got to suck it up and play through
it," he says. "Tape it and tee it up. A veteran with several
exemptions might have taken a couple of months off to rest or
even have surgery, but I didn't have that luxury."

Following that painful 80 at the Buick, McLean withdrew and flew
home to Minneapolis for two weeks, hoping the wrist would heal
with a little rest. Feeling better, he then flew to Knoxville,
Tenn., to play in Fuzzy Zoeller's 18-hole charity pro-am, where
he wound up partying with Chris Judd, J.Lo's ex-husband. ("He
said she's awesome," McLean says. "That's all I got out of him.")
The day after the pro-am McLean's wrist was so sore, "I couldn't
even get the cap off the toothpaste," he says. At that point he
flew back to Minneapolis and finally saw a doctor, at the
Minneapolis Orthopedic Center, where injured Minnesota Vikings go
to get patched up. The diagnosis: Untreated bone spurs had begun
to calcify and were pressing on the nerves and tendons.

"The doctors were amazed that I played with it as long as I did,"
McLean says with what sounds like manly pride. Per doctor's
orders, he hasn't touched a club since. For the last month
McLean's hand has been in a cast to immobilize the wrist, and he
is taking anti-inflammatories in an attempt to break up the
calcification. The injury will be evaluated in two weeks. Best
case is that the wrist has responded to treatment and he'll be
ready to fight for his job at Q school in November. The sobering
alternative is surgery, which would sideline McLean for six
months or longer. (He is trying to secure a partial medical
exemption from the Tour that would allow him to play up to a
dozen events next year regardless of what happens at Q school.)

McLean has been assured that the injury is not
career-threatening, but it certainly has been
career-interrupting. "Everything that could go wrong has gone
wrong this year," he said last week. "It's not how you dream
about your rookie year. People tell me you learn from mistakes
and from the bad times, so I guess I'm learning a lot these days."

Like how to brush his teeth and sign checks lefthanded. ("My
signature looks like a five-year-old's," he says.) For McLean,
25, the last month and a half has been the longest he has gone
without golf since he broke his right leg playing Australian
rules football when he was 16. "I'm going a bit stir-crazy," he
says. For exercise he is jogging four miles a day and
occasionally playing tennis as a lefty with his girlfriend, Missy
Kretchmer. Otherwise McLean has basically turned into an interior
decorator, devoting much of his free time to shopping for
furniture to fill up the new town house in suburban Oakdale,
Minn., that he and Missy moved into in early August. So far the
big purchase has been a comfy caramel-colored leather sofa. "I
made sure I bought a really nice couch, because that's where I'm
spending a lot of my time," he says ruefully. Having grown up in
Australia with only four TV channels, McLean is now making a
careful study of the hundreds available in the U.S. One thing he
is careful to avoid is PGA Tour telecasts. "I get too frustrated
when I see the guys on TV," he says.

There is one upside to all of McLean's downtime. "It's given me
time to sit back and reflect on the year and think about what
I've got to do next year to play to my potential," he says. In a
game in which power is a huge advantage, his upside remains
tremendous. McLean is still third in the Tour driving-distance
stats, at 308.9 yards a pop. But even with that kind of edge in
length he missed 13 of 18 cuts, with his best finish an 18th at
Tucson. McLean was looking forward to a long off-season working
on consistency and control with his irons and improving his
erratic putting. It now looks as if he'll have to figure out
those things on the course next year, where every week brings a
new chance to be the next Ben Curtis. "I can't wait to get out
there," he says. "I was proving to myself I could play week in
and week out with these guys. Even though I felt as if I was
playing average golf, I was fairly competitive. It's simply a
matter of getting more comfortable out there. When that happens,
I think I'll do pretty well."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUCE KLUCKHOHN CASTING COUCH James and Missy have been confined to their new sofa, watching everything but golf on TV.COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH British winner Curtis is the class of '03.

2002 Q SCHOOL REPORT CARD

JAMES McLEAN isn't the only '02 Q school graduate who has endured
a tough year. With seven full-field events left, only 10 of last
December's 38 grads are among the top 125 money winners who will
be rewarded with a Tour card for 2004. What will be the magic
number to buy job security? Jay Williamson finished 125th in 2002
with $515,445, and purses have gone up more than 15% since then.

MONEY BEST
RANK EARNINGS FINISH

1. Ben Curtis 37th $1,359,969 1st
2. Woody Austin 40th $1,314,988 2nd
3. Alex Cejka 54th $1,093,508 2nd
4. Carl Pettersson 62nd $938,296 2nd
5. Brenden Pappas 73rd $808,340 3rd
6. Brett Quigley 84th $626,629 4th
7. Dean Wilson 94th $584,345 6th
8. Paul Goydos 99th $557,672 6th
9. Richard S. Johnson 119th $434,154 3rd
10. Mark Wilson 123rd $425,518 4th
11. Jeff Brehaut 127th $419,526 10th
12. David Sutherland 130th $403,394 9th
13. Tom Gillis 135th $375,113 7th
14. Aaron Barber 136th $372,419 4th
15. Mike Grob 143rd $332,954 5th
16. John Maginnes 147th $295,788 5th
17. Mike Heinen 152nd $268,652 11th
18. Mathew Goggin 155th $252,907 20th
19. Scott Laycock 163rd $210,725 10th
20. John E. Morgan 165th $205,524 5th
21. Anthony Painter 166th $196,926 14th
22. Donnie Hammond 167th $193,243 23rd
23. Brian Bateman 169th $187,231 11th
24. Jason Caron 175th $164,732 15th
25. Brian Watts 183rd $134,905 22nd
26. Andy Miller 185th $126,370 31st
27. Chris Anderson 188th $123,918 36th
28. Dave Stockton Jr. 192nd $117,661 21st
29. James McLean 193rd $117,182 18th
30. Akio Sadakata 202nd $91,105 39th
31. Kenichi Kuboya 203rd $91,069 47th
32. Vance Veazey 208th $78,767 20th
33. Ken Green 213th $70,633 25th
34. Jeff Klein 226th $40,680 31st
35. Joel Kribel 227th $39,120 37th
36. Cameron Yancey 229th $36,290 56th
37. Bart Bryant 234th $24,226 50th
38. Brad Lardon 241st $16,400 39th

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