The story of how Maverick McNealy went from hesitant fifth man to national player of the year favorite is written on his laptop. There’s a running document for each college golf season, both fall and spring, and a tab for every tournament and qualifying session during his nearly two years at Stanford. The breakdown of each event and 18-hole round is approximately four pages long, with precise insights and analysis into every shot he hit, how he was feeling, what he was thinking, why he struggled or why he played well.
“It takes 15 to 20 minutes,” he says, “but I think it’s well worth it. It gives me a record.”
A record of all the stinging disappointments.
A record of all the lessons from his former ballyhooed teammates.
And a record of all the remarkable highs, the four wins, and the drive to get even better.
McNealy is the breakout star of this college golf season, and usually that would mean he’s on the fast track to stardom. But the 19-year-old’s career path isn’t quite so linear. Many believe he could run a successful startup company right now. He’s the highly motivated son of a near-billionaire. And though he’s one of the nation’s best on a golf course, he’s even better in the field of management science and engineering.
In two years, when he decides whether to become a pro golfer, a CEO or the next Trip Kuehne, McNealy will know where to find the answer. It’s all there, in his own words, right on his laptop.
CONRAD RAY COULDN'T HELP BUT KEEP a close eye on McNealy – his office is set near the first tee at Stanford Golf Course, and the kid who lives less than 10 minutes down the street has played the club championship there since he was 12, winning three times.
Maverick was taught the game by his father, Scott, who co-founded Sun Microsystems and became one of the wealthiest men in the Silicon Valley. Scott was a former college golfer at Harvard and a plus-2 handicap in his prime, and his love for the game trickled down to the rest of his family, including the four boys: Maverick, Dakota, Colt and Scout.
Some of Maverick’s best memories are the trips he took to Palm Springs with his parents and siblings, when they’d play 36 or 54 a day over the holidays. He didn’t begin playing competitively until his sophomore year of high school, and even that wasn’t a year-round pursuit because of his commitment to the San Jose Junior Sharks, for whom he was a defenseman and forward for six years. Until college, he played ice hockey seven months out of the year, a stark contrast to many kids his age who were jetting around the country chasing AJGA titles.
McNealy’s cross-training made him a late bloomer, but his father thinks it also gave him some much-needed perspective.
“When you go full speed on ice on two knife edges with a stick in your hand while people are hacking at you, trying to break a bone,” Scott says, “a 4-footer doesn’t seem so scary.”
Maverick’s coming-out party on a national level came in the summer of 2012, when he reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Junior. Still, he wasn’t heavily recruited, mostly because at the time he was considering playing both hockey and golf in college. Those options were limited, of course, but he found a kindred spirit in Ray, a longtime family friend and a former hockey player himself.
Ray’s philosophy when it comes to recruiting is that each year he wants to nab one or two blue-chippers and one developmental player.
“Mav,” he said, “definitely fell in that second category.”
STANFORD'S 2013-14 TEAM WAS ONE of the best in program history, with junior Patrick Rodgers and senior Cameron Wilson spending a majority of the season as the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked players in the country. Last spring Rodgers wound up tying Tiger Woods’ career mark of 11 college titles; Wilson then became the first Stanford player since Woods to capture the NCAA Championship.
With those guys in contention seemingly every tournament, it was up to the rest of the five-man team to, well, not screw it up.
McNealy was the No. 5 man for much of his freshman season. He fulfilled his duties and acquitted himself well, all things considered, making the Pac-12 All-Freshman team on the strength of three top-10s. But protective, conservative golf rarely leads to good results, and in the postseason he was exposed.
Head-to-head match play is used to determine the team champion at the NCAAs, which meant that McNealy’s point was just as important as Rodgers’ or Wilson’s. The two stars won their semifinal matches, but that only evened the score at 2-2 against powerhouse Oklahoma State. The Cardinal’s entire season came down to McNealy’s match against OSU’s Talor Gooch.
After going back and forth over the final four holes in regulation (and then halving the first two of the playoff), Gooch sank a 30-footer on the 21st hole to eke out a win.
“Bottom line I didn’t finish the match when I had a chance to,” McNealy says now. “I was a little bit shell-shocked. It was the first time TV cameras were behind me, and I so badly wanted to win for the team. I didn’t have the necessary self-confidence and self-belief.”
And so began what he described as a “summer of disappointments.”
Sure, he qualified for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, but just one shot outside the cut line with two holes to play, and with his father on the bag, he three-putted from 9 feet and then tripled the last hole after his tee shot found a bush just a foot off the fairway.
He had a chance to win the Players Amateur, but he stumbled in the final round.
He was on his way to match play at the U.S. Amateur, but he tripled his final hole to miss the cut after misjudging his layup and finding the water.
At the end of a frustrating summer, he huddled with swing coach Alex Murray. His swing had never felt better, but he was tired of coming up short.
The fix? McNealy says it was simple as a change in mindset.
“Instead of teeing it up not to screw up,” he said, “I was teeing it up to win every week.”
THE RETURNS WERE FAST AND FURIOUS. He won his first start of the fall season, at Olympia Fields. He won his next event, too. As his team prepares for this weekend’s Pac-12 tournament, he has won four times, tied for the most of any player in Division I.
But he didn’t become the favorite for national player of the year and post a head-to-head record of 739-57-15 simply because he thinks he can win. There’s always more to it, and Ray points to the influence of Rodgers and Wilson.
After all, McNealy spent a whole year watching two of the best, and most meticulous, players in college golf. He learned how to practice diligently and effectively, how to balance the rigors of Stanford’s academics as well as the school’s difficult tournament schedule (No. 4 in the country).
Rodgers’ golf IQ was off the charts. He kept notes on everything. He was surgical in his approach. After playing 36 holes alongside his more-heralded teammate at Pasatiempo last spring, McNealy casually told Rodgers in the team van that he’d love to get his feedback on what he can improve. Rodgers said sure, that he’d get back to him. The next morning, McNealy had a 609-word email waiting in his inbox.
Rodgers told McNealy that his pace on the greens needed work: I thought at times you hit your short putts too hard, many through the break, and made it tougher on yourself by making the hole smaller with speed.
That he was playing too conservatively with his iron shots: The sound and the trajectory are some of the best I have seen at any level.You can get at any pin because you control the height and shape any way you want. I would encourage you to use this control more often in competition …
And, most importantly, this:
I have seen so much growth and maturity in you as a player. You have come from a player who thought you could contend, to a player who believed you could contend, to a player who now knows you can contend in just a few short months. I know you can WIN and you should have confidence and swagger as we move into the postseason.
Says McNealy: “It went right over my head freshman year, but looking back it was spot-on.”
Wilson, meanwhile, gave McNealy a crash course in TrackMan – how and why you can shape shots with the same swing, how the ball reacts to the clubface.
“Two very different games,” he said of Rodgers and Wilson. “Both great.”
More than just the technical aspects, Ray said, “Mav saw the way they carried themselves. They had a lot of moxie, they put in the work, and when they turned up to play they were all business and trying to win a tournament.”
MCNEALY TENDS TO FAVOR AN ANALYTICAL approach, which is no surprise, because he is studying industrial engineering that is modified to add computer science and statistics. His concentration is in financial and decision engineering – or, basically, how to take a massive amount of data and make the best possible decision from that information.
He has developed a model to calculate strokes gained-putting and his proximity to the hole relative to Tour standards. Last year, he figured, he lost about three shots per round on the greens. Part of the reason? He never knew how to practice – this was the first time in his life that he’d had a golf club, not a hockey stick, in his hand every day of the year. “There’s no rebuild phase trying to get my touch back,” he says.
Just as he sought out Wilson for his stinger driver shot and David Boote for his bunker play, McNealy also worked with the best putters on the team and tried to learn from them. During his sophomore season, he is about three shots better on the greens, per round, which makes him eight or nine shots better over the course of a 54-hole tournament. That’s the difference between finishing, say, 25th and first.
But his strokes gained model is nothing compared to his tournament logs. For every event – every round, every qualifier – he writes up four pages of notes. A general assessment of how he played. Every shot he hit. What he felt. What he thought.
It’s not just a record. It’s a form of therapy.
Of that heartbreaking NCAA semifinal match against Oklahoma State, he wrote: Well, losing sucks. We lost 3-2. We all played well, I feel like I played great, but it just wasn't enough... Now somebody has to step up and fill Rodge's and Cam's roles - I feel like I proved myself this week. But I have so much to improve upon.
When he won his first career title at North Ranch, in the season opener, he typed: I didn’t sleep great - my legs were pretty sore in the middle of the night, and breakfast wasn’t easy. I felt like I might throw up over the first tee shot, but got more and more comfortable as the round went on. … They said the first one is supposed to be pretty difficult, but after making those 7 consecutive 3s, it was pretty much on cruise control. Now on to win one in an even tougher field.
After noticing at Colonial that constantly snacking throughout the round was helping his game, he tapped out: THIS HAS TO BE THE LAST TIME - ON COURSE NUTRITION, ON COURSE NUTRITION, ON COURSE NUTRITION. EAT MORE!!!
When he closed with 64 to win the individual title at PGA West and his team fired a school-record score, he wrote: This was one of the best rounds of my life. … It’s funny that I can’t really pinpoint exactly why I played so well today - I think it’s a bit of a combination of my game having been really good for a long time, believing in my ability to close out tournaments, feeding off the momentum of our team, and just losing myself in my process of staying in that zone.
“It’s a stockpile of information,” he says of his notes, “all right there at my disposal.”
But even that isn’t enough. After every tournament, he meets with Ray and assistant Graham Brockington in their office for an hour’s worth of feedback.
“After another win who am I to point out four or five things?” Ray says, laughing. “Most kids don’t want to hear that, but he doesn’t make me feel like I have to pull any punches. He wants the feedback. If he stays in that mindset, there’s a really high ceiling.”
SO WHAT'S IT ALL FOR? For fun? Or for his future?
The wins and the tournament invitations and the watch lists are piling up so fast now, and even McNealy isn’t sure what he wants to do. Already he is feeling the pull of two career paths.
After his breakout season, he is now the third-ranked college player in the country, and the No. 8 amateur in the world. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal published a story from Augusta, Ga., in which it tabbed him as a “sophomore prodigy … who could one day become what golf desperately needs: a rival for Rory Mcllroy.”
Which assumes McNealy even wants to be that guy.
After all, his favorite week of the year isn’t the NCAAs or U.S. Amateur. It’s usually the family vacation in Minnesota, where they tee off at 6 a.m., then swim, paddleboard, water ski and tube on the lake, and then play golf until dark. He doesn’t want that to end now, just because he has a higher national ranking.
Last year pro golf seemed like a pipe dream. Now, McNealy concedes only that it “seems possible; not guaranteed, but possible.” Listen to him closely, however, and you sense that he’s intrigued more by the prospect of becoming the world’s best career amateur than the player most likely to challenge Rory. He wants to play golf, not necessarily work in it.
To be sure, it’d be a highly unusual route, but it’s not unprecedented – Trip Kuehne, the 1994 U.S. Amateur finalist, is the only All-American in recent memory who opted not to turn pro.
“I don’t think I’m as tempted [by the pro game] as the other players because I grew up seeing myself in the business world following my dad’s footsteps,” McNealy said. “The primary motivation for me to go into the business world is the understanding that I have been incredibly privileged and given all the opportunities you could ever want to this point, and I feel like it is in a lot of ways my duty and responsibility to give back.”
The past few summers McNealy has interned at Wayin, a Denver-based social media company that his father co-founded, and he will do so again during a lull in the amateur schedule. He understands that he has access to world-class networking and educational opportunities at Stanford. Already there is stiff competition for his services – and he won’t graduate for another few more years.
“I can’t tell you how many people who meet him want to have lunch,” Scott McNealy says, before adding: “He’s in a very unique and special position. I swear he could step in and run most startups out there right now. He doesn’t know how much he knows. He’d learn the job so quickly and be a great leader and CEO. …
“I told him, ‘If you want to [someday pursue a pro golf career], go do it. But there are other things that may not be as fun or exhilarating but they may be more satisfying and rewarding and responsible.’ I think he struggles with it.”
That decision is still months, even years away, of course. Then McNealy will put his Stanford education – and his financial and decision engineering background – to good use: All he has to do is sift through those running documents on his laptop and make the best possible decision using that massive amount of data. And right now, he’s not done collecting.