McLean leads, U golfers follow

by Aaron Kirscht

When a long-hitting 19-year-old stepped out of the Australian outback to win the NCAA championship in May, less than five months after arriving in the United States, the short list college golf’s best players was suddenly and irreversibly altered.
James McLean’s 17-under-par 271 not only tied the NCAA record, but also catapulted him — and his Gophers teammates — into the national spotlight.
This summer, McLean’s dominant game has done more of the same. The sophomore won the State Amateur, State Open and Pine to Palm tournaments in convincing fashion, dazzling local golf fans with his prodigious length off the tee.
And he served notice that he’s prepared for a run deep into the U.S. Amateur, which begins this week at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York.
McLean is one of 312 players — and four Gophers, along with seniors Jeff Barney and Adam Dooley and freshman recruit Matt Gibb — who will attempt to survive 36 holes of stroke play and make the 64-player cut. From there, McLean said, anything can happen.
“You can have a great day and still get beat,” he said. “I’ll just play as well as I can and see how far that takes me.”
So far in his Gophers career, that attitude has served him well. He had little trouble getting around the scary-long 7,151-yard Championship Course in New Mexico, the site of the NCAAs. Same goes for Rochester Country Club, where he whipped the state am field by six strokes, and Bunker Hills in Coon Rapids, where he took the state open by four strokes.
Oak Hill, site of the 1995 Ryder Cup matches between European and United States professionals, is sure to present McLean with his toughest test to date. Only he doesn’t seem too intimidated.
“I’ll step on the first tee and see what it looks like, I guess,” McLean said with a shrug.
His self-confidence plays into the Tiger Woods comparisons that have flowed freely since McLean first put a smiling gopher head cover on the driver he uses to routinely propel the ball more than 300 yards down the fairway. McLean said he’s flattered by the comparisons but also admits he has a long way to go before he can play at that level.
“There are so many things I have to work on if I want to go to that next level and play consistently with those guys,” McLean said. “The short game has to come around a little bit. I can hit the long ball, but those guys can hit the long ball and keep it in the fairway.”
Still, suggestions that McLean might leave school early to go pro are rampant. But McLean and his coach say making the jump too early could hurt more than it can help.
“When that day comes, and I hope it does, I’ll know when he’s ready,” said eighth-year coach John Means. “There are some things you can really lose by leaving school and turning professional — like two or three years of the best time of your life.
“The ability to play out there is always going to be there for him. To be too quick, to jump out too fast, you’re throwing away something you can never get back.”
Means said “major club and ball companies” have been courting McLean since he won the NCAA title, but the coach said the dollar figures discussed were not enough to convince McLean to forego his collegiate eligibility.
That could change if McLean is able to follow up his NCAA win with the U.S. Amateur title, something only three players — Jack Nicklaus in 1961, Phil Mickelsen in 1990 and Woods in 1996 — have done before.
But for now, McLean is happy working toward a kinesiology degree and a better golf game.
“At this stage, I haven’t really proven myself on the big tour,” McLean said. “I haven’t played in any professional events or anything, so I can’t really get a feeling for where I am. That’s a big reason why I’m staying in school.”