AUSTIN, Texas – On paper this wasn’t a fight, but then the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play field is filled with paper lions.
This isn’t March Madness, despite the best efforts to market it as golf’s version of the NCAA Tournament. Actual seedings for the WGC-Match Play are little more than rough guidelines. But even by those subdued standards, Maverick McNealy, the last man into this week’s field, likely didn’t get much love in many brackets.
When the field was set by the world ranking two weeks ago, McNealy ranked 70th. A week later he’d dropped to 74th and the 26-year-old’s chances of making the field were slim enough that he made sure to have a Plan B in place.
“I would have gone to Punta Cana,” said McNealy when asked his plan if he hadn’t made it into the World Golf Championship.
On Sunday, he was still committed to playing both the WGC-Match Play and the Corales Puntacana Championship, the Tour's opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic, but he’d flown to Austin to play a practice round and, perhaps more importantly, visit with his brothers.
“I was actually watching my brother's adult league hockey game on Sunday night, and I got a call from my agent, we got a call from Sam Burns' agent saying he was going to withdraw from this week,” McNealy explained.
McNealy was officially added to the WGC-Match Play field on Monday as the 64th-seeded player, which would, in theory, make his Day 1 match against 14th-seeded Joaquin Niemann a one-sided bout.
It was definitely one-sided but it was McNealy playing his first seven holes in 4 under par for a commanding 5-up lead. In his first start in the event, he needed just 12 holes to close out his match for an 8-and-6 thwart.
“I just wanted to keep the pedal down and make sure he didn't have the opportunity,” McNealy said.
For McNealy, a third-year PGA Tour player, this opportunity goes well beyond a “paper” upset or even the luxuries of playing a limited-field event for guaranteed money and FedExCup points. This is, on a macro level, where he wants to be.
In his mind, there are three different and distinct circuits on Tour.
“There's the I-just-got-on-the-Tour tour where you're playing in the Korn Ferry category and reshuffling and playing whenever you get the opportunity,” he explained. “Then the top 125 you get to pick and choose your schedule, but you're not necessarily guaranteed the invitationals, WGCs and majors.
“Then there's the Tour that the top 50 in the world play, where they're in all four majors, all four invitationals and all the WGCs, and then they pick and choose a handful of favorite other events and that's their schedule.”
It’s the latter where McNealy wants to be and even an 11th-hour addition to the WGC-Match Play's field is a significant step in that direction. The foundation for his climb began last fall when he started the new season with a runner-up finish at the Fortinet Championship and he’s been impressively consistent with just a single missed cut in a dozen starts.
McNealy’s Day 1 victory in Austin may not qualify as a bona fide upset, but it did check a few impressive boxes. Niemann is ranked 18th in the world and earned one of the season’s most impressive victories at the Genesis Invitational. That it came in the first organized match-play event McNealy has played in a half-decade is also worth noting.
The 2017 Walker Cup was his last official match-play event, although he said he gets plenty of match-play practice at home.
“Every week at home for $5 birdies or whatever it is. There's lots of good guys to compete with in Vegas at home,” he said. “I play a bunch of match play.”
That McNealy’s World Golf Championship breakthrough came the same week as an impromptu family reunion only added to what has already been a good week. His brother, Colt – all four McNealy brothers are named after American cars – won Sunday’s hockey game, and the youngest of the group, Scout, is in his third year of statistics at Baylor (Dakota is the fourth McNealy brother and lives in Nevada) and spent the night on McNealy’s couch.
“I'm the dumb jock of the family,” McNealy laughed.
With his statistics background, Scout could probably explain why his brother’s Day 1 rout wasn’t an upset, at least not in the context that we celebrate during March Madness.
But following an eventful few days, Maverick McNealy is certainly starting to look like a Cinderella story.