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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 (3 07.3 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."