On Sunday afternoon, under a brilliant New Orleans sky, Claudia McCallister took off her oversized sunglasses and put a pair of XL binoculars to her baby-blue eyes. Her husband, Blaine, was lining up the potential winning putt on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff against Carlos Franco at the Compaq Classic, and Claudia needed a better view. "It looks like 3� feet to me," she said, "but I'm the blind one."
This was not an idle joke. Since 1990 Claudia has suffered from pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE), a rare degenerative disease that has left her with precious little eyesight. She needed her husband's hunting binoculars to make out the events unfolding before her on English Turn Golf and Country Club's 18th green, which was all of 15 feet away. Funny thing, though. Claudia's the one with the eye disorder, but Blaine always seems to be leaking tears.
After shooting a second-round 65 to claim a share of the lead, McCallister had to cut short his postround press conference when he got choked up trying to put into words what it would mean to win again, after seven difficult years. Following a 68 last Saturday that kept him tied for the lead, with Franco, McCallister elaborated on the subject, squinting through red, puffy eyes. "It would be huge for me and my wife," he said. "She's my heart and soul. She inspires me to do the best I can do."
How many emotional wounds could one victory heal? Five days before the Compaq's final round Claudia had buried one of her closest friends, Nancy Martin. Martin's sister, Lori Berning, has been Claudia's best friend since the seventh grade, and she, too, spent the final round eyeing Blaine's every move. Lori helped Claudia navigate the crowds, often leading her by the arm. Walking with the McCallisters, in spirit if not in the flesh, was Blaine's 26-year-old stepdaughter, Kelly, who was treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma almost three years ago, about the time her grandmother was succumbing to cancer. Amidst so much tragedy, golf can seem meaningless.
McCallister, 41, had been in a prolonged slump that began during Kelly's illness. In the previous three seasons he had kept his Tour card only once, in '98, when he finished a cottonmouthed 125th on the money list. In no way did he resemble the player who had rode sterling iron play to five victories from 1988 through '93, including a pair in '89, the year he finished a career-best 15th on the money list. "I don't want to be one of those guys who just gets by," McCallister said. Toward the end of last year he rededicated himself. The hard work began to show during November's Q school, during which a fifth-round 61 propelled him to a first-place finish.
McCallister had played steady golf in 2000, but nothing pointed to a breakthrough in New Orleans. The week before, he had double-bogeyed the 36th hole to miss the cut in Houston, yet he hung around town so long he didn't even get in a practice round at English Turn. McCallister has long been part of the Houston golf mafia, coheadlining the Three Amigos charity outing with his old University of Houston teammates Fred Couples and Jim Nantz. This year's Amigos was staged in the days leading up to the Compaq, beginning with a dinner on May 1. The tournament the following day was rained out, but, McCallister says with considerable pride, "we still raised a half-million dollars." It is money that helps buy peace of mind for all three of these world-weary friends. Couples donates his third of the proceeds to researching cancer, which claimed both his parents' lives. Nantz pledges his third to combating Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts his father. McCallister funnels his cut to PXE research.
There was a time when life was more carefree. The McCallisters met in 1986 at the Hilton Head, S.C., airport, where Claudia was working as a ticket agent. Trying to impress this lovely brunette behind the counter, Blaine mentioned that he had just come from the golf tournament.
"Oh, how'd your player do?" Claudia asked, and with that slight their romance began. It wasn't until four years later that PXE began to inflict its damage, in the form of blurry vision and blind spots. Within three months an overabundance of calcium had caused the blood vessels in Claudia's left eye to crack, a painless yet devastating occurrence that left her with only peripheral vision. The right eye was ravaged a year and a half later.
Though legally blind, Claudia, 51, remains active and self-sufficient. She still indulges her love of literature through unabridged books-on-tape, lugging around volumes that contain as many as 27 cassettes. Claudia spent most of last week buzzing around New Orleans with Berning, who lives nearby. On Saturday the two of them boycotted the tournament in favor of some jazz and an afternoon of poking around the French Quarter, where McCallister had no trouble finding her way among the boutiques. "Oh, honey, she can shop, trust me," says Berning.
About the only thing McCallister couldn't do on this big day out was read the lunch menu. At home she reads with the aid of a high-tech setup in which she places text under a camera that projects the words onto a 20-inch TV at up to 60 times their normal size. "She's the most capable blind person I've ever seen," says Berning, yet Blaine remains protective, especially when his wife follows him on the course.