By Adam Schupak for Golfweek
When Maverick McNealy arrived at Stanford in 2013, his teammates found the freshman had an unusual habit: he had to eat a ham sandwich every two holes.
“That always cracked me up,” Stanford men’s coach Conrad Ray said. “You’d think the bogeys were coming if he didn’t have the right ham sandwich.
McNealy overcame his superstition – these days, it’s one ham-and-cheese and one PB&J – and keeps the bogeys at bay.
The 19-year-old junior from Portola Valley, Calif., won an NCAA-best six college tournaments last season, including a 10-stroke romp at the Pac-12 Championship, and led the nation with a 69.05 scoring average. McNealy captured the Fred Haskins and Jack Nicklaus awards as the top college golfer in 2014-2015. He has risen to No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and was selected to the U.S. Walker Cup team that played Great Britain & Ireland.
McNealy’s sophomore season was the type that earns lucrative endorsement deals and often leads to an early college exit to chase the Monopoly money available in the pro ranks. But McNealy embodies the all-around excellence of an astronaut, and he may take a different route to owning Park Place and Boardwalk someday. He sizes up his future with the same intensity as if reading a putt. When asked whether he considered forgoing any of his college eligibility to turn pro, McNealy quickly replied: “No chance. Quite frankly, I don’t know if professional golf is going to be what I end up doing.”
It has been more than two decades since a player of McNealy’s caliber has made such declarations, and it speaks to another truth about this gifted golfer. His gaudy record does not drive him as much as his quest to lead the Cardinal to a national championship. He’s a throwback, with more interest in a business career and making a name as a career amateur. McNealy’s father, Scott, a Silicon Valley titan who co-founded Sun Microsystems (sold to Oracle in 2010 for $7.4 billion), serves as a model. So what does dad think of his son’s potential?
“There’s Steve Jobs, there’s Bobby Jones and there’s Jordan Speith. He has the opportunity to try to be like any of those,” Scott McNealy said. “He has the skills, all the background and all the support in the world to do any one of those three. The question he has to ask himself is, ‘What matters to him most?’ “
McNealy learned the game from his father, a self-proclaimed golf major at Harvard who later held the lowest handicap of any Fortune 500, a reported plus-2. Scott McNealy remembers the time he took his 5-year-old son to the practice range and first realized his raw promise.
“There was a ball picker facing us, no more than 30-40 yards away, and he had a 3-wood. He aimed at the tractor, and I swear he hit the grill nine out of 10 shots,” Scott said. “I just said to myself, my boy is not going to have a problem hitting the ball straight.”
Scott tried to instill in his four boys, the oldest of whom is Maverick, the same ferociousness that made him a success. That included one bedroom for the brothers to share, with four twin beds lining the wall. No telephone, computer or TV.
“I have four boys that were told if you don’t get a 4.0, you don’t get to play sports,” Scott said. “You might not get dinner.”
Golf was a perfect outlet for an increasingly competitive kid such as Maverick, yet the game never received his full devotion. He played ice hockey for the San Jose Junior Sharks and considered playing both sports at an Ivy League school until Ray called.
“As soon as he stepped on campus, I knew he was pretty special,” former teammate Patrick Rodgers said. “You could see he had super potential. He just had something that the other kids maybe didn’t have.”
What McNealy lacked was experience and belief that he could achieve his lofty goals. As a freshman, McNealy manned the team’s fifth slot. When he shot 75-82-79 in NCA regionals at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, he fretted about whether he would merit a spot at nationals.
But already he was being groomed as Stanford’s next leader. At the Western Intercollegiate, teammates are paired together, and ahead of the April 2014 competition, Rodgers let his coach know that he would like to play with McNealy.
“I didn’t say much,” Rodgers said. “I just watched him play.”
On the van ride back to campus, McNealy couldn’t resist: What did you see? How can I improve? How does my game stack up?
Rodgers responded with a 609-word email.
“I’ve never seen someone more disciplined and motivated in what they do,” Rodgers said.
When McNealy won the first two tournaments of his sophomore season, Rodgers, who turned pro after tying Tiger Woods’ school-record 12 career titles, texted, “Slow down. I don’t want you breaking my record too soon.”
From Rodgers, McNealy learned the value of preparation. By examining his stats, McNealy discovered that the number of putts he holed from 4 to 15 feet best determined his success. McNealy became a thief working in daylight, improving his putting by more than three shots per round. At the Pac-12 Championship at Palouse Ridge in Pullman, Wash., he broke his personal record not once, but twice, gaining 3.5 strokes in the first round and 4.0 strokes in the final round.
“I hit it well that day, but I made everything, too,” McNealy said. “I guess that’s how you shoot 61.”
This summer, McNealy won the Northern California Golf Association’s Match Play Championship and made the cut in two PGA Tour starts: Greenbrier Classic and Barbasol Championship. The most important golf he played this summer may not have been against the pros but at the Pacific Coast amateur at Eugene (Ore.) Country club, site of the 2016 NCAAs. Any mental baggage from the 82 he shot there at regionals vanished as he tied for second, navigating Eugene’s traditional, tree-lined fairways and slick and canted greens in a third-round 65.
“The pressure he feels is to win a team NCAA Championship,” his father said.
McNealy is a goalsetter, and it’s when discussing his ambitions that he sheds light on where his career might be headed.
“It would be a ‘reach goal’ for me to be the No. 1 amateur after college and work a full-time job and see if I can win a U.S. Amateur or a U.S. Mid-Am and play in the Masters someday,” he said.
At the Walker Cup practice session in December, he sponged insights from role models captain John “Spider” Miller, senior amateur Mike McCoy and Mid-Am Nathan Smith to better understand how they balance competitive golf with their business interests. Golf already has caused conflicts. As tournament invites poured in, McNealy had to pass on interning this summer at Wayin, a Denver-based social media company that his father co-founded and serves as its CEO.
Where does McNealy, who is pursuing a management science and engineering degree, see himself in five years?
“Either top 50 in the world and competing in majors and winning Tour events,” McNealy said, “or starting a business with some of my brilliant Stanford friends and working with them. I don’t really know: either business world or professional golf. I’ll see.”
So, will his father’s prediction hold true? Could McNealy be a visionary in the business world, like Jobs? World No. 1, like Speith? Or the next career amateur, like Jones?
“That’s a great question,” Stanford’s Ray said. “I’m excited to find out. Let’s put it this way: I don’t think it’s the last we’ve heard from the kid.”