In the early 1970's, Jim McLean became one of the most talented Northwest amateur golfers since Bruce Cudd, Dick Yost, Jack Westland and Harry Givan. As one who competed against all of these golfers over a couple decades of play, Dick Price described the young McLean in his prime. "I know this, Jim is the only player in the area [of such skill]. You have to go back a long way to find anyone in his class."
As he did with several other top high school-age amateurs from the region, Elwin Fanning recruited Jim McLean for the University of Houston. After learning golf at West Seattle Golf Course, Elwin became a member of Glen Acres Golf & Country Club – the original Glendale Country Club, which borders Rainier Golf & Country Club in south Seattle. McLean drew Fanning's attention while he was a junior golfer at Rainier.
Jim recalled Fanning as a confidence-booster during his early years. "Elwin was a big supporter and really encouraged me a lot when I was a kid growing up in Seattle. I always looked up to him. He certainly had an influence on me. When he was home from [college at] Houston, he saw me play and told me I was good enough to compete with other kids from around the country. I remember him telling me that a few times and, although he probably did not know it, that was really good. It did me a lot of good coming from him."
The Blossoming of a Champion
Following graduation from high school in 1968, Jim received a scholarship to attend the University of Houston's "golfing academy." His credentials were not outstanding as he hadn't won a major event. But, like the other neophytes who preceded him at Houston, McLean's skills were soon bolstered by Cougar coach, Dave Williams. McLean had the one characteristic Williams found most important: he was dedicated to the game and put in many long hours at the practice range.
In later years, McLean's fellow competitors raved about his ability from 100 yards on in. McLean related how he developed his flair for the short game. "At Rainier they had a short chipping and pitching area, about 70 yards long, and I would just wear out my wedges practicing out there. Also, I remember being able to practice in the evenings while growing up in the Northwest. I would practice until 9:30 or 10 o'clock each night under ideal temperature conditions."
As a freshmen at Houston, McLean came back home and entered the PNGA Men's Amateur Championship at Illahe Hills Country Club in Salem. Unfortunately, he lost in the second round to semifinalist Mahlon Moe, 2-up. But in 1969 at Capilano Golf & Country Club in Vancouver B.C., McLean's natural talent shined through. That year Jim McLean took on everyone in sight, beating all comers as well as the PNGA's notorious medalist jinx. The slender, blond-haired 19-year-old Houston sophomore defeated Bruce Richards of Bellevue, 5 & 4, in the 36-hole final match to earn the first of his three PNGA titles in four years.
McLean was five-under-par with 68-71, 139, to win medalist honors by a stroke over former Canadian Amateur winner, Johnny Johnston. He then cut a swath through the upper half of the draw, sidelining 1967 PNGA finalist and Houston teammate, Don Scott, in the semifinals. Over 113 holes of match play in 1969, McLean was 10-under-par. Capilano hadn't yielded such scoring since Al Mengert brought the course to its knees during his memorable match with Ray Weston in 1950.
Unfortunately, McLean's heroics on the course were not the highlights of the tourney. The 1969 PNGA became better known as the "Kaopectate Tournament,'' after Capilano's chef served vichyssoise (sour cream soup) that wasn't up to par. McLean and Richards had wisely shunned the soup during the PNGA President's banquet, and were in good health for Saturday's final.
Though the food poisoning did not affect the men's championship, it played a role in the women's final. Of the two finalists, Gail Moore had eaten the soup while Shelly Hamlin didn't. After spending a restless night close to the bathroom, Moore suffered through the morning round, and the medalist didn't recover her usual form until the end of the match. Hamlin, an attractive Stanford University junior ranked among the nation's top-three players at the time, methodically defeated her weakened opponent for the title. Moore's demise was tough to take as she'd enjoyed an outstanding 1-up win in the semifinals over the illustrious Anne Sander.
McLean recalled his three-year streak of excellence after his victory in the 1969 PNGA Men's Amateur Championship. "Winning the Northwest Open in 1970 at Columbia-Edgewater when I was 20 is still my biggest win. But, 1971 as a whole was certainly my best year as an amateur. I didn't finish worse than fourth in any tournament I played in. I won the PNGA [again], the Pacific Coast Amateur at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, finished fourth in the U.S. Amateur when it was stroke play, and second in the Northwest Open. My finish in the Amateur qualified me for the Masters the next year, where I made the cut. I also played in the U.S. Open in 1971 and 1972."
In the 1971 PNGA at Fircrest Golf Club, McLean bested Clint Names of the host club, 2 & 1. The 32-year-old Names, a former University of Washington basketball star and member of the Husky golf team, was playing in his first PNGA event. But Names quickly established himself as a contender, eliminating Jim Brady, a 22-year-old from Seattle who was the medalist in the 1970 and 1971 PNGA Men's events, on the 21st hole of their second-round match.
"My irons were good all week," McLean said of his 1971 title run. "But my putting never was up to par. I was more concerned with that than the hometown crowd following Clint. But I was glad I disappointed them. My best play occurred in the semifinals against Bob Carlson. He shot 71 in the morning round and 36 in the afternoon front nine, and I beat him 10 & 9. I shot 67 in the morning and followed with a 30."
Bringing Royal Oaks to its Knees
In 1972 at difficult Royal Oaks Country Club in Vancouver, Washington, McLean recorded one of the phenomenal accomplishments in PNGA championship history. His performance during Thursday's quarterfinal match against Mark Braman of Portland rivaled the remarkable Mengert-Weston duel in 1950. Through 13 holes, McLean shot an eagle and six birdies to go nine-under-par and win, 5 & 4. The eagle was McLean's third of the day; he had scored two eagles in the morning match in squeaking out a 20th-hole victory over Donnell Smith of The Dalles, Oregon. After playing 33 holes on a hot muggy day, McLean returned to the course that evening to practice – the Houstonian influence at work.
"Yeah, at Royal Oaks I kept track and was 37-under-par for the week when I won. I went back a year later to play in the Northwest Open over the same course and couldn't figure out how I had done it. I do recall that I made everything on the greens that week. I think that was the best I have ever played, anywhere." Dick Price described what it felt like in his final-round match with McLean in the 1972 PNGA. "I can play with the other fellows around here. But against McLean I am playing against a professional."
Finding Success in a New, High-Profile Career
In the 1990's Jim McLean became widely known as one of golf's best teachers. The Jim McLean Golf Schools are housed at several top-flight courses around the country, including Kayak Point Golf Course in Stanwood, Washington. He also became well-regarded as a writer. Of that avocation, McLean reflects, "Yeah, I really do enjoy writing. I was one of the few guys to graduate from Houston with a degree [in Economics], and I minored in English. I have written several golf instructional books." His sixth volume, called The X Factor, came out in February 1997. The blond Seattleite with a triad of coveted PNGA titles grew up into a whole new role, evolving from a youthful phenom to the sport's venerated "Golf Doctor."