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."