Byline: Rob Thompson Column: On Golf in THUNDER BAY
On a blustery, sunny day in Northern Ontario, Alan McLean steps up to the second tee at Whitewater Golf Club and pounds his drive more than 300 yards down the fairway.
It will be the first of many mammoth tee balls McLean will hit during his round. One will travel more than 350 yards. Every par five is within reach in two and he'll even overshoot a 340-yard hole with his tee shot.
Over the course of his round, he'll chip in an eagle from 60 yards and make three other birdies on his round. He'll finish the terrific Tom McBroom-designed course in even par from 7,300 yards.
Sound like PGA Tour material? McLean still might be. But right at the moment, he's proof of just how hard it is to make a living playing golf.
McLean, a stocky, powerful golfer with a game built for the wind, is among the leaders on the Nationwide Tour in driving, averaging 308 yards off the tee. He has a deft, creative touch with his wedges and likes to play boldly.
The only problem is that McLean, with all his length and power, has yet to make a single cut this year on golf's top minor league.
He may be only one year younger than his fellow South African countryman, Ernie Els, but he's a world apart in terms of golf results. He's missed playing on the weekend 12 straight times. And you thought Mike Weir was having a tough year.
Despite that, McLean is among the top 500 golfers in the world.
If you teed it up with him, he'd likely be the most impressive golfer you would ever get the chance to play with. He could be one good week away from playing his way onto the PGA Tour, home of courtesy cars and private planes.
There are two types of golfers on the Nationwide Tour. There are those on the rise, like Belleville's Jon Mills, who won last week's Canadian PGA Championship event in Cambridge.
Or there are those guys struggling to return to form, like Aurora's David Morland, who played a couple of years on the PGA Tour.
McLean feels he is in the first group, seeing as this is his first year on the Nationwide Tour, but he's aware that at 34, he could also be nearing the end of his time as a pro golfer.
These days, making cuts isn't his only struggle. Finding sponsors willing to ante up for a struggling pro is tough. McLean is aware part of his problem is his location.
While a number of golf writers have been flown to Thunder Bay to test out Whitewater, McLean is there by choice, having married a local. The difficulty is that the city is a long way from the corporations that might bestow a lucrative sponsorship deal on an up-and-coming golfer.
To keep chasing his dream, McLean has racked up the credit cards and exhausted his savings.
"I've cashed in everything and sold everything just to keep going this year," he says, noting it has been a struggle, with his wife on maternity leave with their daughter.
McLean needs to make cuts in places like Omaha and Wichita just to support his family and help slow his growing debt load. He needs to make some putts. He may be 10th in driving distance, but he's back at 106th in putting.
"If I made 12 more putts a tournament, I'd make some money," he says, before blasting another tee shot into the ether.
It might yet happen for McLean.
In the meantime, he's not that different from every weekend hacker who tees it up praying this will be the round when it all comes together. McLean is hoping against hope that his game will hold together just long enough to make his struggles a thing of the past.
But if McLean doesn't make some money soon, he won't even be able to afford a trip this fall to the PGA Tour's qualifying school.
That would likely spell the end to his dream, he admits.
How can someone so clearly talented be so close, yet so far, from finding success?
That's the difficult part for every golfer, McLean says.
"People watch me hit the ball and say, 'Man, you hit it beautifully,' " he says on the phone a few days after our round in Thunder Bay.
"But that only adds to the frustration."