On Sunday afternoon, under a brilliant New Orleans sky, Claudia
McCallister took off her oversized sunglasses and put a pair of
XL binoculars to her baby-blue eyes. Her husband, Blaine, was
lining up the potential winning putt on the first hole of a
sudden-death playoff against Carlos Franco at the Compaq
Classic, and Claudia needed a better view. "It looks like 3 1/2
feet to me," she said, "but I'm the blind one."
This was not an idle joke. Since 1990 Claudia has suffered from
pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE), a rare degenerative disease that
has left her with precious little eyesight. She needed her
husband's hunting binoculars to make out the events unfolding
before her on English Turn Golf and Country Club's 18th green,
which was all of 15 feet away. Funny thing, though. Claudia's
the one with the eye disorder, but Blaine always seems to be
After shooting a second-round 65 to claim a share of the lead,
McCallister had to cut short his postround press conference when
he got choked up trying to put into words what it would mean to
win again, after seven difficult years. Following a 68 last
Saturday that kept him tied for the lead, with Franco,
McCallister elaborated on the subject, squinting through red,
puffy eyes. "It would be huge for me and my wife," he said.
"She's my heart and soul. She inspires me to do the best I can
How many emotional wounds could one victory heal? Five days
before the Compaq's final round Claudia had buried one of her
closest friends, Nancy Martin. Martin's sister, Lori Berning,
has been Claudia's best friend since the seventh grade, and she,
too, spent the final round eyeing Blaine's every move. Lori
helped Claudia navigate the crowds, often leading her by the
arm. Walking with the McCallisters, in spirit if not in the
flesh, was Blaine's 26-year-old stepdaughter, Kelly, who was
treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma almost three years ago, about the
time her grandmother was succumbing to cancer. Amidst so much
tragedy, golf can seem meaningless.
McCallister, 41, had been in a prolonged slump that began during
Kelly's illness. In the previous three seasons he had kept his
Tour card only once, in '98, when he finished a cottonmouthed
125th on the money list. In no way did he resemble the player
who had rode sterling iron play to five victories from 1988
through '93, including a pair in '89, the year he finished a
career-best 15th on the money list. "I don't want to be one of
those guys who just gets by," McCallister said. Toward the end
of last year he rededicated himself. The hard work began to show
during November's Q school, during which a fifth-round 61
propelled him to a first-place finish.
McCallister had played steady golf in 2000, but nothing pointed
to a breakthrough in New Orleans. The week before, he had
double-bogeyed the 36th hole to miss the cut in Houston, yet he
hung around town so long he didn't even get in a practice round
at English Turn. McCallister has long been part of the Houston
golf mafia, coheadlining the Three Amigos charity outing with
his old University of Houston teammates Fred Couples and Jim
Nantz. This year's Amigos was staged in the days leading up to
the Compaq, beginning with a dinner on May 1. The tournament the
following day was rained out, but, McCallister says with
considerable pride, "we still raised a half-million dollars." It
is money that helps buy peace of mind for all three of these
world-weary friends. Couples donates his third of the proceeds
to researching cancer, which claimed both his parents' lives.
Nantz pledges his third to combating Alzheimer's disease, which
afflicts his father. McCallister funnels his cut to PXE research.
There was a time when life was more carefree. The McCallisters
met in 1986 at the Hilton Head, S.C., airport, where Claudia was
working as a ticket agent. Trying to impress this lovely
brunette behind the counter, Blaine mentioned that he had just
come from the golf tournament.
"Oh, how'd your player do?" Claudia asked, and with that slight
their romance began. It wasn't until four years later that PXE
began to inflict its damage, in the form of blurry vision and
blind spots. Within three months an overabundance of calcium had
caused the blood vessels in Claudia's left eye to crack, a
painless yet devastating occurrence that left her with only
peripheral vision. The right eye was ravaged a year and a half
Though legally blind, Claudia, 51, remains active and
self-sufficient. She still indulges her love of literature
through unabridged books-on-tape, lugging around volumes that
contain as many as 27 cassettes. Claudia spent most of last week
buzzing around New Orleans with Berning, who lives nearby. On
Saturday the two of them boycotted the tournament in favor of
some jazz and an afternoon of poking around the French Quarter,
where McCallister had no trouble finding her way among the
boutiques. "Oh, honey, she can shop, trust me," says Berning.
About the only thing McCallister couldn't do on this big day out
was read the lunch menu. At home she reads with the aid of a
high-tech setup in which she places text under a camera that
projects the words onto a 20-inch TV at up to 60 times their
normal size. "She's the most capable blind person I've ever
seen," says Berning, yet Blaine remains protective, especially
when his wife follows him on the course.
After teeing off on the 5th hole on Sunday, he swerved over to
the ropes to get a smooch and to do a little nagging. In
addition to affecting eyesight, PXE has deleterious effects on
the skin, and though Claudia was wearing a head-to-toe khaki
ensemble and a large straw hat, Blaine said, "Be sure to stay
out of the sun."
"You, too, hon," Claudia replied, with a laugh.
Blaine stole another kiss on 15, a hole he birdied with an
18-foot snake to move to 18 under. He then hit it stiff on the
par-4 16th for his third birdie in a row, knocking in the putt
at almost the instant Harrison Frazar was making double bogey a
hole ahead to blow a lead he had expertly protected throughout
most of the round. McCallister was still in front, by one over
his playing partner, Franco, when they reached the 72nd hole, a
foreboding 471-yard par-4 over water that on Sunday was playing
into the fan. McCallister failed to get up and down from the
front bunker, and his first bogey of the day forced the playoff.
On the first extra hole, number 18, Franco made bogey, giving
McCallister that 3 1/2-footer for par and the victory. Alas,
there was too much pathos on the putt, and he never scared the
cup. On the second playoff hole, the 16th, McCallister left his
third shot in a greenside trap, then skulled the next one over
the green. There were no such cracks in Franco's game. With an
up-and-down par from the same bunker, on top of rounds of
67-67-68-68, he successfully defended his title for his third
win in 53 weeks.
McCallister wound up with an X on the final hole, but this
tournament may mark the spot of his return to form. He earned
$367,200, the best check of his career, a sum that secures his
playing privileges for next year (and goes a long way toward
furnishing a new vacation home in Ketchum, Idaho). Moments after
the playoff the McCallisters shared a long, bittersweet hug.
Claudia cried a little. Blaine simply bawled.
"Winning would have been nice, but it's not life or death,"
Claudia said, and she knows from both.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Long view Claudia, who needed binoculars to follow the nearby action, has battled PXE, a rare degenerative disease, for a decade.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Bunker mentality McCallister's hard work first paid off at last fall's Q school.
"I don't want to be one of those guys who just gets by," said
McCallister, who had been exactly that for the last three seasons.