Low scores coming from Down Under

Sarah Mitchell

“Boot” and “jumper” are two words being introduced to the Gophers men’s golf team’s vocabulary. With the arrival of the team’s new Australian acquisition, members of the team are learning another way to say car trunk and sweatshirt.
Freshman James McLean, from Victoria, Australia, signed a letter of intent in August, but did not arrive in Minnesota until Christmas Day. Like his unique vocabulary, McLean’s golf skills are having an impact on the golf team.
While McLean placed 30th out of 90 at his first collegiate tournament, Feb. 15-16 in Mississippi, he stepped up his level of play the following week to finish fifth out of a field of 75 at the Puerto Rico Challenge last week. McLean also recorded the lowest individual round for the Gophers at the meet.
“He is playing great and gets along well with the guys,” head coach John Means said.
McLean played his first round of golf at age 12 while recuperating from a football injury. McLean didn’t play in a golf tournament until he was 16.
He recalled finishing fourth in his first tournament. Eventually his prep career would be highlighted by finishing first out of a field of more than 200 in the Riversdale Cup, which is considered Australia’s most prestigious amateur competition.
McLean discovered several success stories on the golf course. He was rated as the No. 3 player in Australia, was an alternate on the World Cup team and competed in the 1997 Australian Open. While he missed the first cut of the Open, he got to meet pro golfers like Greg Norman and Vijay Singh.
But even though McLean has an extensive golf history, it has not always been his only devotion.
“About two years ago, I had to make the decision between golf and tennis,” he said.
At that time, McLean was the sixth-rated tennis player and the 10th-rated golfer in his country. However, McLean realized that his golf game was improving while his tennis skills had already peaked. So McLean dropped the racket and stuck with the clubs.
Means started recruiting McLean on Christmas Eve, 1996. Assistant coach Brad James, who is an Australian native, was in Australia on a recruiting trip.
McLean played well enough to spark their interest, and the recruiting process began.
“We talked to him, sent him information about the University and the golf team,” Means said.
However, Means and James were not alone in their quest for McLean. Colorado, Nevada-Las Vegas and Stanford were among the University’s competitors.
McLean said he got offers from “a dozen other schools.” He selected Minnesota over the others because the assistant coach was Australian and because he was offered a full scholarship.
Means said he believes James played a huge role in the signing of McLean.
“I am sure it helped,” Means said. “Those people from overseas are all told that Minnesota is located north of the North Pole.”
Aside from learning to measure ball distance in yards instead of meters, the weather in Minnesota is the only major adjustment McLean has to make.
“Back home when I left it was 120 degrees, and now it’s about minus-60 degrees here,” McLean said.
Because of the weather conditions, the golf team practices indoors. Means, however, sees this as an advantage over southern schools, which have weather conditions that allow them to practice outdoors.
The coach said practice is more beneficial when a player can concentrate on his game without the weather distractions. Means compared practicing golf outdoors to “playing basketball on a court covered with water.”
But McLean is still working on the adjustment.
“You’re hitting off mats, so you don’t get a good feel,” McLean said.
McLean will have an opportunity to experience Minnesota in the summertime, as he plans to take classes over the break.
This is to make up for fall quarter, which he missed because of golf commitments in Australia. During the summer, McLean will spend time focusing on his golf game when he helps Means at the Minnesota Golf Instructional Camp.
McLean said his strength is “driving off the tee.” Means, who compared McLean’s golf style to that of a “typical Californian golfer,” agreed.
“He is an excellent ball striker. He hits it long and straight,” Means said. “His short game is adequate.”
Since putting is Means’ expertise, the two are working on improving McLean’s short game.
“We’ve refined his swing a little bit. He is a good player. Because he is young, he has trouble focusing for long periods of time,” Means said.
McLean’s ultimate goal is to compete in the PGA just like his role model Stuart Allenby, who is from Australia.
Before McLean pursues this goal, Means would like to have him around the clubhouse for his entire collegiate career.
“I sure hope he plays four years here,” Means said. “The good professional golfers don’t get good until 29 or 30. He has a long way to go.”