One of the uncomfortable truths of the Korn Ferry Tour is that no one wants to be there. Sure, the quality of play is exceptional – it’s arguably the second-best circuit in the world – but the tour serves primarily as a feeder system for the big leagues. It’s a stepping stone, not the final destination.
Everyone is desperate for a promotion, and that’s how Maverick McNealy found himself in his hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska, playing his fourth consecutive week, in the midst of a grueling summer stretch in which he was supposed to go 10 in a row. Because he sat precariously on the top-25 bubble, he played in a weekly pressure cooker that would determine his status for 2020 and beyond.
This push to the finish line began with a middling finish in Salt Lake City. It continued with a weather-plagued top-10 in western New York, followed by a missed cut in Colorado, at a course that’s a 10-mile walk at elevation. And now it included an opening-round 76 in Omaha, during which the heat index when he left the course at 8 p.m. was still 109 degrees.
McNealy woke up that next morning feeling as though he’d been flattened by a semi. He texted his agent: I can’t go next week. I’m going home.
Taking a week off during the heart of the season often can feel like career suicide, but his time away proved therapeutic.
“The point where I struggled so hard, I decided that I’m OK being on this tour as long as it takes,” McNealy said by phone recently. “I said that I’ll do whatever I need to do. I’m not in a rush. And when I became OK with where I was, that allowed me to get to the next level.”
When he returned to competition the following week at TPC Stonebrae, in the penultimate regular-season event, McNealy made a late eagle to finish third and essentially lock up his PGA Tour card. He’s one of 156 players who will tee it up this week in the season-opening A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier – the first time he’s played there since 2015, when he was the 19-year-old Haskins Award winner for whom golf seemed so easy.
His remains one of the most unlikely trajectories in golf: hockey player, unheralded Stanford freshman, Player of the Year, top-ranked amateur, minor-league grinder, now PGA Tour member. Only halfway through his college career did it even register that he might be talented enough to try professional golf; he’d always envisioned himself in a corner office, working toward a greater cause, following in his famous father’s footsteps. (Scott McNealy is the former co-founder of Sun Microsystems, a company he sold in 2010 for $7.4 billion.)
When McNealy finally made the jump in 2017, some wondered whether pro golf would be a short-term gig, whether he’d soon grow tired of the week-to-week monotony, whether after a few years he’d instead use his connections and intellect to run a startup. Now 23, McNealy has always faced the perception that he’s a silver spooner, never mind that he and his three brothers were never raised as children of privilege; they crammed into the same bedroom in the family’s 7,280-square-foot Bay Area mansion, their twin beds lined up in a row. The same rules applied for all of the boys: Their parents would cover costs through college, and then three months of free room and board at home after graduation. But then they’re on their own, which is how McNealy ended up in Las Vegas, sharing an apartment in a state with no income tax. Even some of his peers wrongly assumed that the son of a Silicon Valley veteran was living lavishly on the Korn Ferry Tour, flying private and lounging in the Four Seasons. Little did they know that McNealy had double-booked his flight on Southwest and was staying in a Hampton Inn. “They were almost disappointed,” he said.
A few years ago, when announcing his pro intentions, McNealy listed the usual reasons – love of the game, the never-ending quest to improve – but also this: That the ball didn’t care who he was, or where he came from. It hinted at the burden of expectation he’d carried the past few years, during his meteoric rise to stardom.
“I’ve really struggled with that,” he said. “I felt a lot of pressure to be exceptional the last couple of years, when it was an impossible standard to hold myself to.”
That feeling persisted in his first year as a pro. He successfully navigated Q-School to secure his playing privileges on the Korn Ferry Tour, but he collected just $87,006 across 18 events in 2018 – enough to retain his card but nowhere near his end goal of reaching the Tour.
His commitment was being tested. He was weighed down by expectations. He was burned out, teeing it up 12 times in 16 weeks in a failed attempt to secure a Tour card. And his swing was deserting him, leading to a confidence-crushing two-way miss and an embarrassing week of practice that included 24 lost balls.
“I really fell in love with golf at rock bottom,” he said. “I told myself, I have to have a strong reason to keep playing golf.”
The first reason was personal. In high school he began helping Curriki, a non-profit whose mission is to make high-quality education free and accessible for everyone. Earlier this year McNealy launched “Birdies for Education” and donated $20 for every birdie, a figure matched by his sponsors. Many of his pro-am partners got involved, too. The total amount raised this season: $385,000.
“That’s what I love to do,” he said. “I feel like I’m making a difference, using golf as a way to get better at things.”
But McNealy also understood that the better he played, the bigger platform he’d enjoy. So he changed his routine, trying to peak for Sunday afternoon and not Thursday morning. He sharpened his speed on the greens, his short-game work during practice rounds, his distance control with his wedges. Still, progress was slow, and this summer he made the difficult decision to split with his longtime swing coach, Alex Murray, who over the past decade helped transform McNealy from a hockey player into the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world.
McNealy’s girlfriend, LPGA player Danielle Kang, has worked for years with Butch Harmon, and Kang mentioned in passing that Harmon would be happy to look at McNealy’s swing and offer a few suggestions. Harmon identified the problem in just three swings – the tip: wider takeaway, load right, fire left and stand taller with the driver – and sent McNealy home with a printout of what they’d worked on. Over the past few months McNealy improved from 119th in greens in regulation to inside the top 70. “That was a huge key for my end-of-season push,” he said.
McNealy’s results don’t jump off the page – 10 of his 16 made cuts were 30th or worse – but he took full advantage of his few events in contention. Nothing was more satisfying than how he closed out his hometown tournament. Knowing he needed a top-3 to clinch his card, McNealy was only one shot clear of a logjam in fifth place as he played the closing stretch at the Ellie Mae Classic. “On 15, I said, ‘This is it – I’ve got to do it here,’” he said. On the long par 5, McNealy hammered a drive, leaving him 292 yards to a back-left flag. He smoked a hot draw with his 2-iron, his ball scampering onto the green, catching a piece of the hole and settling 6 feet away for eagle.
“That was the shot of the year for me,” he said. “That was the one that got me to the PGA Tour.”
It became official a week later, when he birdied the final two holes in Portland to make the cut and secure his spot in The 25. When McNealy awoke Saturday morning, his dream of being a PGA Tour member was finally realized, the constant pressure of the past 21 months gone. “It felt like all the emotion had left me," he said. "I was just an empty bag of bones.” He played without nerves or adrenaline. He slept for 26 hours the first two nights in Columbus. He looked forward to the next chapter, like every other relieved Korn Ferry Tour graduate.
Last week McNealy was home in Las Vegas, eating, practicing, recovering, preparing for his first PGA Tour season. He’d climbed his way to the pinnacle of the sport, all on his own. It was exactly where he wanted to be.