Stanford's McNealy recharging for run at wins record

By Ryan LavnerNovember 10, 2015, 2:30 pm

After winning nine times in 14 months, earning NCAA Player of the Year honors, playing a pair of PGA Tour events, going deep in the U.S. Amateur, representing the United States at the Walker Cup and competing in the fall while handling a full course load for his management science and engineering major, Maverick McNealy is ready to do something he hasn’t done since high school.

He is putting the clubs away.

Not because he’s burned out. Not because he doesn’t want to play golf.

“I just need the rest right now,” he said.

McNealy is stepping back only for eight or nine days, nothing crazy, but it’s a well-deserved reprieve for the Stanford junior who has emerged as America’s most intriguing prospect in years.

Fatigued or not, his game has shown no signs of slowing down. He finished the fall season Nov. 4 with a victory at the Gifford Collegiate, his third in four starts.

“That leaves a pretty good taste in my mouth that I can enjoy for the next few days,” he said.

The 20-year-old burst onto the scene last fall, just a few months removed from being Stanford’s No. 5 man on a team that reached the NCAA semifinals. He wound up winning an NCAA-best six times, posting the second-lowest scoring average in history (69.05) and sweeping all of the postseason awards.

Then came a busy summer, when he made the cut in both PGA Tour events he played, advanced to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur (losing to eventual champion Bryson DeChambeau) and spent a week overseas at the Walker Cup. Upon returning to the States, he flew directly to Chicago and had one day to prepare for the Cardinal’s season opener, at Olympia Fields. All he did was open with rounds of 67-65 and win by three.

“I’ve walked a fine line of not being rested and not being sharp,” he said. “It feels like I’ve been playing catch-up.”

Yet it hasn’t affected his game, at least not from a results standpoint.

McNealy’s worst finish this fall? Fifth. He shared top honors at the U.S. Collegiate, the strongest field of the fall. And last week, at the Gifford, he erased a five-shot deficit in the final round with a closing 67. On the last two holes, he rolled in 70 feet worth of putts to steal his third victory of the fall, the most of any player in NCAA Division I. Again.

After the round, while eating lunch with his teammates, he finally crashed.

“I felt like I was going to face-plant in my food,” he said.

How McNealy has been able to summon the goods while teetering on the edge of burnout can be traced back to smart preparation and an extensive journal that documents every practice session, round, tournament and year.

One entry in particular stands out, from his first fall tournament last year.

In the lead for the first time in his career, McNealy realized he had 2 ½ hours to kill before his final-round tee time. He can eat only so many breakfasts, and hit so many balls, so he developed a stretching routine that he has used ever since. For a half hour, in the hotel room or in the locker room, McNealy throws on his headphones and listens to music that slows down his internal tempo.

During that quiet time, he puts the next few hours in perspective: What do I need to do today? What does this round mean to me? Who am I playing for? The answer to the last question, always, is his teammates.

“It feels like everything slows down in my mind,” he said. “Physically, it feels like I’m getting ready for somebody to punch me in the stomach. There’s a tense feeling. And then there’s an intense focus on the target.”

On the course, he strives to reach a performance state, a zone where he doesn’t even remember making swings; all he picks up is the ball in mid-flight or mid-roll. It can’t be re-created in casual rounds with his parents or three brothers, Dakota, Colt and Scout. It’s found only when the pressure is at its most intense.

“I play some of my best golf when I’m nervous or under the gun,” he said.

That helps explain why his final-round scoring average over his last 17 starts is 68.05 – or nearly a full shot lower than his actual scoring average.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” he said.

Last week, McNealy locked into that performance state on the ninth hole, after making birdie on the hardest hole at La Costa’s Legends course. He added birdies on Nos. 10 and 13 and was cruising along at 4 under for the day.

Then he three-putted from 15 feet on 15 and heeled a 260-yard 3-wood into the lake on the par-5 17th. His wedge from 90 yards wasn’t great either, spinning back down the slope, about 40 feet away.

“Everything says that I’m out of the tournament,” he said, “but for some reason I didn’t feel like that. When things are going poorly, I’m not angry or frustrated or disappointed.”

The putt came off perfectly, and he walked off the green with an unlikely par. What happened next seemed inevitable: a perfect drive, a 190-yard 5-iron into the wind, a 30-foot birdie from the fringe, a win.

Most troubling for his future opponents is that McNealy has played (and won) this fall with a swing that isn’t where he wants it to be, with a driver that occasionally doesn’t cooperate, with a sagging energy level.

“He’s acquired a toolbox of skills that allow him to keep his number around the lead, and then once he is in the mix he has this ability to zero in and execute some clutch shots,” Stanford coach Conrad Ray said. “It’s interesting, because he hasn’t hit it as well as he can. But he has an ability to win now and not have his best stuff.”

At least part of McNealy’s fatigue can be attributed to the burden of being a top player – his nine wins since the start of last season are three more than any other player. Because of his national ranking, he’s looked at as the man to beat every time he tees it up. And more than ever, he is shouldering the load for his team, knowing that his score could make or break the Cardinal’s chances.

But there is also the academic component. Like any student-athlete not majoring in jock, McNealy has enjoyed all of this success while slogging through his heaviest workload yet at Stanford. His recent studies include a deep dive on (gulp) optimization quadratic programming, and during the Gifford he spent three hours a night working on a project with a teammate.

“It’s him grinding and the higher expectation levels on all fronts,” Ray said. “I don’t know that it will ever go away. Not now. His goals will continue to evolve, and depending on what level he reaches, there’s always an internal push to do the best you can.”

McNealy’s pursuit of 11 career titles at Stanford – a record set by Tiger Woods in the mid-1990s and matched by Patrick Rodgers in spring ’14 – will draw the most attention nationally. 

During McNealy’s sophomore year, after he won the first two events of the season, Rodgers texted him to slow down, to not break his record too soon. Now, after McNealy’s latest W put him within two of the mark, Rodgers needled his friend: What, not able to win outright anymore?

McNealy has 12 weeks until his next event, and there is work to be done. He wants to work on his driver, his biggest weakness. He wants to incorporate a few equipment changes. He wants to sharpen his preparation. And he wants to, well, enjoy his first break in years. “Active relaxation,” he said.  

McNealy said a few months ago that he isn’t even sure whether he will pursue a professional career after college. It was, and still is, a stunning declaration in this era of tweenage millionaires, but he hasn’t changed his stance, even after soaring to the top of the world amateur rankings. In fact, while some of his peers test Q-School or chase titles during college golf’s three-month offseason, McNealy will instead retreat into the background. He seems content simply to focus on his game, his teammates and his family.

“One of the things he does well is he doesn’t get caught up in the idea of being complacent,” Ray said. “He’s always in the fix mindset. He’s always thinking about ways to get better and improve. That’s really the game for him.

“He could take or leave the recognition and the status and the ranking. He has a mature stance on that stuff. The real intriguing thing, for him, is just chiseling away, like it’s a problem set for him. He just keeps working at it and puts his head down and doesn’t get caught up in the hoopla."

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.