The left thumb of James McLean tends to be in the wrong place at
the wrong time. When he was a sophomore at Minnesota, McLean had
to withdraw from a tournament in Puerto Rico after being bitten
on the thumb by an iguana that he had grabbed by the tail. ("I
woke up the next day and my hand looked like a catcher's mitt,"
he says.) When he was a youngster in Australia, he broke the same
thumb while roughhousing in the yard. A month ago, in
McLean was playing Aussie Rules Football with his brother
Campbell, 23, and a friend when thumb met football the wrong way.
Result: torn ligaments and three weeks in a cast.
So you might have expected McLean to be in the dumps last week
when he rejoined the PGA Tour at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in
Memphis, the Home of the Blues. Instead he looked rested and
happy. He seemed to have shed the weight of recent
performances--four missed cuts in five starts since April--and
found the perspective that eludes most struggling rookies. In a
back-alley rib joint last Thursday night he accumulated a
medicinal dose of barbecue spices on his fingers and said, "I
know I haven't played to my abilities, but I'm going to try to
have fun the rest of the year. I'll play the best I can. Whatever
Earlier in the day McLean had opened with a 69 on the par-71 TPC
at Southwind, making a birdie on the 18th hole after a two-hour
weather delay. "I was in the rough all day, but I didn't make any
big mistakes," said McLean, who hit two-iron off many tees to
avoid Southwind's choke points, which tend to be a mere 300 yards
from the tee. He also rolled the ball well, using, for the first
time, an Amazing Grace belly putter. "It's all the rage right
now," said his caddie, Justin Hoyle. "A lot of guys use it as a
practice aid, to help their release."
It probably helped that McLean had things to talk about besides
his game. He had traveled to Miami Beach the weekend before to
watch his girlfriend, Missy Kretchmer, compete in the Ms. Bikini
Universe Pageant. She finished seventh in a field of 55 and
celebrated afterward by breaking training. ("She's eating
chocolate cake like it's her job," McLean said jokingly.)
Meanwhile, Bob Kretchmer, Missy's 53-year-old dentist dad, spent
last Friday on the run, finishing Grandma's Marathon in Duluth in
just under three hours, 32 minutes despite severe leg cramps.
For McLean, who admits to a tendency to turn gloomy when the golf
gods repeatedly blow his ball off line, the Kretchmer family
circus provided a welcome lift. So did the thumb injury, in an
odd way. It reminded him that he is the type of guy who plays tag
with iguanas and teases alligators with a two-iron, as he did at
the Honda Classic in March. John Means, the golf coach at
Minnesota, describes McLean as "the kind of person who would see
one of those big construction cranes and hope there was a bungee
cord attached to the top of it."
Unfortunately, the Tour rarely rewards the reckless. "You see
consistency everywhere," says Tour veteran Brandel Chamblee, who
played a practice round with McLean last week. "James might play
with someone like Loren Roberts and say, 'Wow, I hit it 100 yards
past him.' But at the end of the day Loren has schooled him.
James will succeed," Chamblee adds. "He has too much talent not
McLean recognizes his dilemma. "I'd like to be more aggressive,"
he said in Memphis. "I was able to do that in college and in
amateurs because it wasn't my career on the line. You lost at
golf, you went to class on Monday." But now when he's faced with
the inviting prospect of bashing driver over someone's backyard
swing set to shorten a dogleg, McLean has to consider the
consequences. "If I don't hit it flush, I'm probably going to
make a big number and miss the cut."
The rookie has that part figured out. He rarely pulled his driver
in Memphis, relying instead on his two-iron, which, sad to say,
was unreliable. He hit only 57% of the fairways for the week.
With the 36-hole cut projected to be at one under, he started his
Friday round with a bogey on the 10th hole. He bounced back with
a couple of birdies and was three under when his shot from the
left rough on number 18 bounced off the left bank of the green
and rolled into the water. ("Another stupid double," McLean
said.) On the front nine he birdied the par-5 3rd hole; bogeyed
number 4 when his iron to the par-3 landed a couple of feet short
and hopped back into a pond; and settled for par on the par-4 6th
despite a brilliant iron shot to three feet. ("I simply missed
The 9th hole at Southwind is a stern test. McLean's tee shot
rocketed downhill to the ideal landing spot, but he still had a
difficult approach over water to an elevated green. His shot,
played wisely to the right of a front-left sucker pin, landed on
the green and spun back into thick rough on the steeply sloped
bank. That left a tricky chip, and when McLean left it seven feet
short of the hole, he took a vicious swipe at the grass with his
wedge. His putt for par drifted right of the hole for bogey,
dropping him back to even and nudging him out of the tournament.
In his hotel room a couple hours later McLean tried mightily to
summon up the breezy "whatever happens, happens" attitude that he
had talked about. He couldn't. "I'm playing terrible golf," he
said. "I feel as if I have my D game every week. It's very
frustrating." The veteran players, meanwhile, offered him the
usual bromides: Be patient, keep grinding, learn from your
That last one could be the most challenging for McLean. On
Thursday night, after strolling up and down Beale Street with
Hoyle, McLean stopped to pet a carriage horse. "I grew up in the
country; I love animals," he said, stroking the horse's mane. He
moved on to an agreeable-looking mutt lying on the carriage's
deck. He gave the dog's head a playful rub...and then put his
right hand in the dog's mouth.
"Should you be doing that?" Hoyle asked, watching the mutt chew
on his boss's good thumb.
McLean smiled wistfully. There was no reason, his expression
said, why the dog couldn't have fun.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL TOUGH BREAK Making his first start in five weeks, McLean bogeyed the 31st (left) and 36th holes to miss the cut by a shot.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL STILL SMILING While in Memphis, McLean tried to have fun no matter what the results were on the course.
SO FAR in '03
MCLEAN MUST pick up the pace in the second half if he hopes to
keep his card.
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 --
NELSON 69-71-79-70 79TH $10,192
COLONIAL 72-76 CUT --
FEDEX 69-73 CUT --
WORLD RANK: 578th 2003 MONEY LIST: 167th
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