HANGING ABOVE HIS EXTRA-LONG twin bed, on colorful three-by-five prints, are three motivational sayings by which Maverick McNealy tries to live his life:
If You Can Do Something About It, Do It; If Not, Don’t Worry About It
There’s Always Better
What Are You Going to Learn About Yourself Today?
Those maxims are from his tycoon father, a Nike ad campaign and a random post on Twitter, but they’ve guided McNealy through his formative years at Stanford – through his meteoric rise from overlooked recruit to No. 1-ranked amateur, as well as through his daunting management science and engineering major.
The first two messages are straightforward: There is no benefit in worrying, and it’s motivating and exciting to know that you can improve. But the last one is more complex.
“There are a lot of ways you can think about it,” he said recently. “One is that you should try and learn something from everything you do – that’s part of getting better. But the other is that you make your own character.
“It’s a challenge to myself: How are you going to carry yourself? What are you going to do? What are you going to live by?"
Those questions have never been more relevant to McNealy as he approaches his final college season.
For a kid with seemingly every gift imaginable – intelligence, good looks, desire, wealth, a strong support system and, yes, tremendous physical ability – what he currently lacks most is clarity. His complicated major essentially takes a lot of information and distills it into something useful, and that background will surely come in handy later this year when he chooses whether to follow the traditional path by turning pro or veers off course by entering the business world.
An advertiser’s dream, McNealy could command a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal ... or he could become intrigued by a classmate’s startup idea and join forces. He could realize what many predict will be a fruitful career inside the ropes ... or he could opt for a corner office. He has yet to give even those closest to him any indication which way he’s leaning, which suggests that he’s torn between a life as a touring professional and one in which he becomes a modern-day Bobby Jones, who was a lawyer by profession.
McNealy said that he will make a decision this December, six months before graduation, and it could prove to be unprecedented, at least in the big-money era spawned by Tiger Woods.
Only one All-American in the past 25 years has eschewed the PGA Tour for an office job.
Trip Kuehne competed in the 2008 Masters after winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur (Getty)
TRIP KUEHNE, BEST KNOWN FOR taking Tiger Woods to the 36th hole in the final of the 1994 U.S. Amateur, passed on turning pro in favor of starting a business career.
While his decision perplexed some, Kuehne said his mind was made up even before his duel with Woods.
“I knew what I was going to do prior to that,” he said. “The final match just solidified the notion.”
As talented as the three-time All-American was, his true passion had never been golf. It was investments, ever since he won a stock-picking contest in the fourth grade.
Kuehne figures he cost himself six figures by not turning pro. Back then, college players were slotted for future endorsement money based on their college and amateur achievements – being named an All-American was worth roughly $10,000, for example, while a U.S. Amateur victory was valued at about $100,000. Had he won in ’94, Kuehne said, “I probably would have had to turn pro to take advantage of that situation.”
Instead, he cultivated a successful college and amateur career before going into business, eventually founding his own hedge-fund company, Double Eagle Capital. Since then, he has watched every All-American (first, second and third team) try to make it to the big leagues, most with little success.
“The amount of money you can make in one week on Tour just blows people’s minds and they end up chasing that dream when they probably could have done something else and been way more successful,” Kuehne said. “The majority of these guys, the All-Americans, they’ve been going at it since they were 10 years old with one endgame in mind. But it takes a very special mindset or someone completely different who loves the game of golf to realize that it can open different doors and avenues. You might not make $5 million a year, but you can have a much more rewarding life to raise your family at home and not be dictated by a 32-tournament schedule.”
When asked specifically about McNealy’s upcoming decision, Kuehne offered some advice, from one trailblazer to, potentially, another:
“As a professional golfer, you can have one foot in and say, 'hey, I can go back into business,’ and you’re not all in,” he said. “In the pros, they’re all in and then some. It’s cutthroat. It’s brutal. Whatever decision he makes, my advice to him is to follow your dream, whatever your dream is, choose that and go all in. Don’t ever look back.
“It’s easy to take the well-worn path and turn pro. Very easy. It’s what you’re supposed to do. But a lot of things have to happen: What if you get hurt? What if it takes four or five years to get out there? If you weren’t fully committed, if you weren’t all in, then it’s easy to regret your decision. All of a sudden, it’s too late.”
WHEN MAVERICK MCNEALY WAS A KID, he never dreamed of being a professional golfer, either. A hockey player, maybe, until he realized he was an 85-pound 14-year-old who got smoked every time he played a travel game in Canada.
That was about the same time McNealy began seeing Bay Area swing coach Alex Murray. Even early on, Murray, 41, was struck by McNealy’s studious nature. After qualifying for a junior tournament, McNealy called Murray and ran through an elaborate hole-by-hole breakdown. “I’ve never had a kid that young who would be willing to do all of the follow-up work,” Murray said.
Still, McNealy was recruited by only two college programs. More interested in academics than athletics, he chose to stay close to home at Stanford, about 15 minutes from his parents’ house, to play for Conrad Ray, a former hockey player and Stanford alum himself.
During McNealy’s freshman season, 2013-14, Player of the Year Patrick Rodgers and NCAA champion Cameron Wilson propelled the Cardinal to the semifinals of the NCAA Championship, where they lost to Oklahoma State when McNealy, the team’s unproven No. 5 man, dropped his match in 21 holes. More critical to McNealy’s development were his interactions with the team’s star players. He studied how Rodgers and Wilson worked, how they prepared, how they won.
Those junior-tournament breakdowns with Murray were nothing compared with how McNealy maximized his performance in college. He kept a running document on his laptop, detailing every tournament and qualifying round, with precise insights into how he played, felt and thought.
The summer after his freshman season, using advanced statistics, McNealy addressed the weakness in his game. Over the next year, he improved 5½ shots on the greens, according to a strokes-gained model he developed himself. Already one of the country’s best ball-strikers, he exploded during his sophomore season, winning six times, capturing the Haskins Award as the nation’s top player and landing on the Walker Cup team.
But even though McNealy won four titles during his junior season, warning signs began to appear. He played all year, with no breaks, for the first time and burned out. His unrelenting course load only added to the stress. He knocked out the bulk of his major last season, but he never fully realized the toll it would take. Twice a week during the winter quarter, he woke up at 6 a.m., worked out until 8, practiced for three hours, ate lunch, sat in class from 1-6:30 p.m. and then had a three-hour lab until 10. And these weren’t cupcake classes, either – he studied interactive management science, optimization with linear algebra, probabilistic analysis, electrical engineering and stochastic modeling.
McNealy wore down as the spring progressed. At Pasatiempo, he outdueled Oregon’s Aaron Wise (the eventual NCAA champion) after shooting 16 under par in the 54-hole event. Instead of celebrating arguably the most impressive performance of his career, McNealy fell asleep that night with his head in a salad bowl.
During the postseason, a nasty cold turned into a chest infection. Wheezing his way around Eugene Country Club, McNealy tied for 112th at NCAAs, a stunningly poor result for a Player of the Year contender. There were other factors in play, as well. “There’s an added weight and burden,” Ray said. “So once you’ve achieved some success, are you guarding to have that success again, or are you trying to reach a new level? That’s what he’s working through now.”
In June, McNealy played in a 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier with his father, Scott, on the bag. “On the opening nine, he swung and I could see his vertebrae, his shoulder blades and ribs through his sweater and his shirt,” Scott said. Over the next few weeks, McNealy was slated to play a handful of events overseas, and his father tried talking him out of the trip. By the end of the day, barely able to finish because of fatigue, McNealy agreed that it was time to reset.
McNealy had lost 14 pounds (down to 156) while battling the mounting stresses of school, golf and expectations. The entire episode reminded Scott McNealy of when he was Maverick’s age. Working two shifts seven days a week, he wound up in a hospital with mononucleosis and hepatitis. “He does everything full bore,” Scott said, “so I said let’s try and intercept him so he doesn’t end up in the emergency room like I did.”
Doctors eventually determined that McNealy was suffering from adrenal fatigue, which explained why he had little appetite and could hit only 20 balls on the range before retreating to a bench. While his peers played the usual summer amateur circuit, McNealy stayed back in Portola Valley, crushing himself in the gym, devouring four meals a day and then sleeping for hours.
After a few weeks he was ready to return to the course. He’d play 18 holes in a cart with his three younger brothers, then return home to crash. Almost every round he shot during a family vacation in Lake Tahoe was in the low to mid 60s. No pressure. No expectations. “Just fun,” he said, “like it usually is.”
Even though his limited action this summer was uninspiring – he finished 20th at the Trans-Miss Amateur, tied for 67th at a Web.com Tour event and failed to qualify for match play at the U.S. Amateur – McNealy remained undeterred.
“More so now than ever, I’m wanting to fly under the radar,” he said. “I love being the underdog, playing from behind. Being the overdog is not something I’ve really experienced in my entire life until this year. Other people seeing me ahead is different and something I need to get better at.”
Maverick and Scott McNealy at this year's Ellie Mae Classic on the Web.com Tour (Getty)
LISTEN TO MCNEALY SPEAK, and it’s not hard to tell whom he admires and trusts most; during a recent interview, he began six sentences with, “My dad always told me …”
And for good reason. Scott McNealy is the former co-founder of Sun Microsystems, a Silicon Valley billionaire.
“It’s like being Michael Jordan’s son and thinking about trying to play professional basketball,” McNealy said. “You have one of the great role models of all time.”
But Scott and wife Susan never raised their four boys as children of privilege. Despite growing up in a 7,280-square-foot mansion, Maverick, 20, Dakota, 18, Colt, 17, and Scout, 14, all shared the same room, their twin beds lined up in a row, barracks style. There were no phones. No TVs. No electronics. No music. They all attended the same schools. They all worked in the same tiny study. And they all played the same sports, with the exception of Maverick, who also played soccer; the other three brothers are taekwondo black belts going for their second degree. Said Scott: “I wanted them forged together like no four brothers ever were.”
And yet there have been grumblings that Maverick is in position to be successful only because of his famous surname.
At a Web.com Tour event in July, Maverick was warming up on the range while Scott, 61, inconspicuous with shaggy hair and a scruffy beard, cleaned the clubs in the background. He overheard a couple of caddies gossiping.
“You see that kid down there?” one of them said, nodding at McNealy. “He’s rich.”
Amused, Scott stopped scrubbing and walked over.
“Oh, he’s not rich,” he said with a smirk. “His daddy’s rich.”
“I told Mav a long time ago that you were born not with a silver spoon but a platinum spoon in your mouth,” Scott says now. “Everybody is going to look at you and say, ‘You got to where you are because of who you were born to.’ So you’re going to have to outwork everybody or they’re going to think it was because of us.”
After his freshman and sophomore years, Maverick worked as an intern at Wayin, a Denver-based social-media startup that his father founded six years ago. “I enjoy that life,” he said, “and however big or small my impact is there, I’m not afraid of the office life. I’m not afraid of the cubicle. I’m not the person who would complain about going to work on Monday morning.”
Indeed, McNealy seems like an ideal employee. One of his Stanford essays was about what mattered most to him. He chose being part of a team, whether that’s his family, his travel hockey squad, the Cardinal, or the United States. He wants – no, needs – to work toward some greater cause. That’s why those around McNealy worry that, after a few years, he could grow weary of the monotony of Tour life, even if he dedicates himself philanthropically.
“It’s still a lot of time alone,” he said. “It’s still a lot of time having a conversation with the napkin in front of you. That’s different.”
McNealy politely non-answers when asked (repeatedly) about his future, saying that he’s shelving that decision until the winter. And that’s not just lip service – two prominent agents confirmed that they haven’t even started preliminary discussions with McNealy about representation or an equipment deal.
“That’s very unusual,” said one agent. “But if you think about the kind of kid he is, it’s not that unusual. He can literally do whatever he wants. Not many people can say that.”
McNealy signing autographs for fans at the Ellie Mae Classic in July (Getty)
CONVENIENTLY, MCNEALY’S SPECIALIZATION AT Stanford is in decision analysis, which combines math, statistics, economics, finance, computer science and probability. “That’s gonna come in very handy this winter,” he said with a smile. “It’s Decision-Making 101.”
But considering McNealy’s analytical mind, it’s worth asking: Is there any room in this for emotion?
“That’s a big uncertainty,” he said. “How I feel and live my life. I don’t want to live a life I hate. So how do I align what I like and enjoy and what I want to accomplish?”
Part of the uncertainty stems from the fact that, like Kuehne, professional golf was never a dream, a goal, an endgame. McNealy experienced more success, and quicker, than he ever realized was possible.
If you had asked him about his pro possibilities entering college, he would have said there was a 0 percent chance. After his freshman year, 1 percent. After qualifying for the 2014 U.S. Open, 5 percent. After his sophomore year, probably not, but maybe.
And now, after his junior season, he’s torn.
It’s clear the impact this could have on the amateur game, which has long been viewed as merely a steppingstone to the big leagues. No one in the past 50 years, not even Kuehne, has had these credentials, this background, and turned down the pro game. It just doesn’t happen.
“I think he should stay amateur,” said Scott Harvey, a 38-year-old property manager who played on the 2015 Walker Cup team with McNealy. “He’s got more to offer the world than just golf. He’s a great person, a great kid, smart as can be. I think he’s doing the world a disservice if he plays golf.”
“But I just don’t see a human being who is that passionate about golf not giving it a crack at the professional level,” said Murray, McNealy’s swing coach. “I think it’d be a tragedy if he didn’t try. He always said that he wanted to play golf as long as he could until he can’t get any better, and only then would it change how he feels about golf.”
Even if McNealy does choose pro golf, it isn’t likely to be a long-term endeavor. He has already mentioned how playing before he settled down and started a family would be the “right time to do it”; his father stepped down as CEO of Sun Microsystems when Maverick was 10 because he wanted to help raise the four boys. The elder McNealy said it was the best move he has ever made.
Kuehne’s advice was to be all in, like he was, no matter the direction. But right now, it’s not realistic for McNealy. He’s not fully committed to either career path. Might never be.
“That’s why he’s just gotta follow his dream of what he wants to do,” Kuehne said. “You’ll be a lot more successful if you’re chasing your dream and not what somebody else wants you to do. Because if you’ve got two guys, and one guy is living his dream and the other is going through the motions, the guy living his dream is going to kick your ass every time.”
The next few months will be momentous for McNealy regardless. He’s one victory away from tying Stanford’s career wins record (held by Tiger Woods and Rodgers), he has exemptions into two majors, and there’s a home Walker Cup, which means he’ll remain amateur until at least mid-September.
And so it promises to be a fascinating fall, to watch how a 20-year-old throwback with seemingly limitless options somehow chooses one, and how the principles that have guided him for the past few years – What Are You Going to Learn About Yourself Today? – reveal themselves once more.
“My dad always told me: To whom much is given, much is expected,” he said. “If there’s this big bag of really great opportunity that is going to be dumped on somebody – a Stanford education, this golf ability, very well off financially – then who would the world want that to be? That’s what I’m trying to be.
“How can I use what I have – which you can’t ignore, can’t be ashamed of, can’t waste – and go about this in a way that does something good, to the best of my abilities? I don’t know what that is. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t even know if I’ll find that in 30 years, but that’s what I’m working toward.”