Maverick McNealy was relaxing in his hotel room in Bradenton, Fla., when his phone buzzed.
It was May 2015, and he’d just wrapped up a sensational sophomore season at Stanford in which he’d won six titles, earned Player of the Year honors and intrigued observers with his meteoric rise and backstory as the son of a Silicon Valley tycoon. But now, his father, Scott, was on the other end of the phone, with some unexpected career advice.
“If you want to turn pro,” Scott said, “this would be a great time.”
Maverick was shocked.
“Dad,” he said, “that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. There’s no chance I’m not coming back to Stanford.”
Over the past two years, McNealy’s reluctance to turn pro has fascinated the amateur golf community, but with his college eligibility exhausted, and with so much yet to experience, he finally confirmed Wednesday that he will enter the pro ranks after the Walker Cup. The 21-year-old will make his debut Oct. 5 at the PGA Tour’s season-opening Safeway Open – the end of a two-year, will-he-or-won’t-he saga that began as soon as he hung up the phone in his Florida hotel room.
“To be completely honest,” he told GolfChannel.com this week, “there’s one guy on each shoulder: One guy is saying, What are you doing, Maverick? These guys are extremely good. But the other guy is saying, There’s so much fun and potential to do cool things and have a blast.
“I’m nervous and excited, but I also realize it’s not a walk in the park and for a professional athlete, it’s the furthest thing from a certain outcome and future. But I’m full bore ahead, trying to become the best player I can be.”
McNealy’s initial opposition was understandable: Professional golf never was in his plans. Growing up, he assumed that he’d follow his father’s lead and enter the business world. (Scott co-founded Sun Microsystems and currently serves as the CEO of Wayin, a Denver-based social-media startup.) At Stanford, Maverick was a management science and engineering major, and he joined the golf team as an unheralded freshman. His breakout sophomore season and ascent to the top of the World Amateur Rankings surprised everyone – mostly McNealy himself.
It wasn’t an act, some ploy to draw attention – during several interviews over the past three years, McNealy genuinely wavered between his two career choices. But eschewing the pros would have been unprecedented, at least in the modern era: Only one All-American in the past 25 years has decided against turning pro, and Trip Kuehne didn’t boast a college résumé as strong as McNealy’s.
Though he couldn’t match the same production over his final two college seasons – he finished his career tied with Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers for the most victories in Stanford history, with 11 – McNealy initiated a meeting in January with his parents, swing coach Alex Murray and Cardinal coach Conrad Ray to explore the possibility of a pro career. The discussion didn’t go as planned.
“My dad is the world’s best devil’s advocate,” McNealy said, “and he laid down every single reason why I shouldn’t turn pro. My world was turned upside down.”
But after more contemplation, he returned with the four biggest reasons why he wanted to test the pro ranks:
1. He loves golf. “That’s the core of any decision,” he said, “that you love what you’re doing.”
2. He believes he can improve. “Getting better is one of the most rewarding things for me in life,” he said, “and there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
3. The ball doesn’t care who you are. “It’s been a motivating factor in my life, that I need to outwork everyone to show that the success I do earn is a product of hard work and not just that it was given to me,” he said. “There’s always been a little chip on my shoulder, but I’m not out to prove anything. I’m not trying to create my own identity or overcome anything or break down any sort of preconceived notions about me. I want to play golf and do some cool things.”
And finally: 4. Professional golf will be fun. He gets to play a game for a living. Compete. Travel the world. Meet new and interesting people.
Those four reasons, that explanation, was all his famous father needed to hear.
“The only way you can screw this up,” Scott said, “is if you’re not 100 percent. If you commit and never look back, you’ll have made a great decision.”
Former Stanford teammates Cameron Wilson and Rodgers offered similar counsel: Don’t put a deadline on your career, whether it’s five years or 15. Be all in.
“I’m fairly secure in my reasons to turn professional,” McNealy said. “Even if – absolute worst-case scenario – that I don’t play well the next five years and I have nowhere to play, then at least I gave it a shot.
“When I look back on my career, the only way I’d be dissatisfied was if I went at it half-heartedly.”
And so he is moving forward, without hesitation, embarking on a career he never thought possible.
McNealy is being represented by Peter Webb of P3Sports Reps. He is moving to Las Vegas next week. And he is announcing equipment and apparel deals shortly. Next season he will receive the maximum seven sponsor exemptions allowed to non-members.
“I’m excited to see how he does,” Ray said. “He has left a strong legacy here.”
When McNealy tees it up in Napa, he’ll have made nine previous starts in a professional event, with his best finish a tie for 44th at this year’s John Deere Classic. But even more than how his game stacked up, he was most curious to experience the weekly monotony of Tour life – the travel, the lonely hotel rooms, the pre-tournament routine, the media obligations, the evaluation afterward.
“I thought I’d hate it,” he said, “but I actually really enjoyed it.”
At the Barracuda Championship, McNealy participated in a junior clinic on Tuesday of tournament week – a perfect introduction, he said, because he wants to focus his off-course efforts on growing youth sports. Given his unique background, what has always appealed to McNealy about the pro game wasn’t fame or fortune. It was the Tour’s charitable initiatives.
“I’d love to be a great role model and an inspiration,” he said, “but for any of that to matter, I have to play well and succeed.”
Even if his results suggest otherwise, McNealy insists that he’s a better player now than he was two years ago, when he dominated college golf, when his dad said it’d be a “great time” to turn pro.
Since then, he has learned how to manage expectations, both internal and external.
He has gained more tournament experience.
And he has learned about himself – his stressors, his limits, his keys to unlocking his potential.
Somehow, he is ready.
“I have a much better chance to win than in my sophomore year,” he said. “I couldn’t be more confident about my game right now.”