Everyone deals with pressure and expectation on some level during their career. For PGA Tour pro Maverick McNealy, successfully managing those expectations is one of the key factors that has led the former world No. 1 ranked amateur to the game’s highest level.
McNealy’s story is as unique as they come on the PGA Tour—a hockey player-turned-golfer who grew up the son of a billionaire Silicon Valley icon. After graduating from Stanford, Maverick faced a fork in the road: follow in his father’s footsteps or carve his own path in golf.
He chose golf. It’s been a challenging and humbling journey, and one that has forced him to work hard for what he wanted…a PGA Tour Card. He finally secured it this past summer by finishing in the top 25 on the Korn Ferry Tour money list.
SI.com’s Ryan Asselta recently caught up with McNealy as he embarks on his rookie season on Tour, where he has missed his first two cuts. The now 23-year old opened up about his unique path, his motivation to play the game and even about his marathon short game contests with LPGA star girlfriend Danielle Kang.
Ryan Asselta: Heading into this season, you’d already played in 17 events on Tour, but this will mark your first official season with your card. Do you feel like a rookie on tour?
Maverick McNealy: I don't know if I feel like a rookie, but it definitely feels different being a member of the Tour. I will say that it's very validating to have earned my PGA Tour card, and to have done it by getting into the top 25 on the Korn Ferry Tour.
The Korn Ferry is a grueling place, and there are a lot more players that are PGA Tour-caliber than there are spots available. It’s really about capitalizing on your good weeks. You have to learn to close and get the job done. It can get very, very frustrating when you’re not playing well, and your finishing 30th or 40th. It’s a psychological test of staying positive when things aren’t going well and dealing with the added pressure of having to close when you are playing well.
RA: Was there a moment on the Korn Ferry Tour that was the toughest and most challenging for you?
MM: There was a nine-month stretch that was the most I’ve ever struggled with my golf game. I was missing the driver both ways and hitting the ball really, really poorly. There were some technical reasons and maybe psychological reasons and it was the worst stretch I’d ever had.
The turning point was in New York at Peek’n Peak. I was in contention and didn’t play well on the front nine on Sunday. I was two over through the first nine holes but turned it around and shot five under on the back and finished ninth. That was a big moment for me and gave me the confidence that I could do it and everything that I’d been working on was paying off.
RA: How about the challenges you now face on the PGA Tour, being a professional and playing the game at the highest level?
MM: Something I said a lot when I turned pro is “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And that couldn’t be truer for me. I look back at when I turned pro a few years ago and I was very inexperienced compared to how I am now. I look back and think “Man, I had no idea what I was doing”.
One of the things I noticed in my first few days on Tour is that everything takes a little bit longer. What might be a four-hour day on the Korn Ferry Tour will take six hours on the PGA Tour. There are just more people who want some of your time. I’m the same guy, though.
RA: How about winning? Have guys like Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa shown that young guys like yourself can win right away?
MM: Those guys are amazing players, but what I’ve found is it’s really hard to compare players because everyone's very different. Those guys had an incredible year.
To be completely honest, when I turned pro, I wasn’t playing very good golf. So that transition has taken a little longer. For me it's less about how quickly I can win, but more how quickly can I get to playing my best golf and how long can I run that out for? I’m confident that when I hit one of those stretches where I can’t miss, I think I’ll be able to do some pretty fun things.
RA: Your background is quite unique. You grew up in Silicon Valley. Your dad Scott co-founded Sun Microsystems. You majored in Management, Science and Engineering at Stanford. Was there uncertainty in your mind as to what direction you wanted to go with your career a few years ago?
MM: Well, I think everyone else was debating a lot more than I was. I had to be completely honest. I was very focused in college. I knew I was going to spend four years at Stanford and get my degree and help my team out as much as I possibly could. It wasn't until my senior year that I started to wonder what I wanted to do with my life.
I’ve heard about a lot of 21-year olds who aren’t quite sure what they want to do with their lives. I wanted to weigh all of my options. I had a fantastic support system at Stanford, my coaches, and my parents, and I decided I wanted to give professional golf a go.
My dad being my dad, he loves to play devil’s advocate. He wanted me to really think through my decision. When I committed to golf, one of my best friends told me “Plan B only distracts you from Plan A,” and that stuck with me.
RA: Did you ever waver in your decision, knowing there was a path in Silicon Valley that you could probably take?
MM: I knew I needed a reason to play professional golf. I thought a lot about that during my struggles. There are a lot of bad reasons to play… for money, for fame. For me, there have been a few reasons that have motivated me to play. One is giving back. The PGA Tour gives more annually than the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA combined. So, it’s an amazing organization to be a part of.
The other is that I started “Birdies for Education” that supports Curriki, which is an education non-profit organization. I’m donating $50 for every birdie I make this year, so that motivates me.
The other reason is what the game does to you. It tests you and forces you to be better because everything is amplified. If you think about how upset you get after a three-putt, it’s pretty inconsequential compared to a thing that would make you that upset in the real world. The game just forces you to control yourself, handle yourself and function at a higher level.
RA: How about pressure? You were a Haskins award winner, the No. 1 amateur. How much pressure comes with that type of success?
MM: It comes with a lot of pressure and expectations, and I'll be the first to say that I didn't handle it very well. I did pretty well in college. Coming in I was an unranked junior golfer who played a lot more hockey than golf growing up, and I exceeded everyone's expectations, including myself.
I won six times as a sophomore, and junior year became world No. 1. All the sudden, those expectations start catching up with you. It was tough for me to handle. I think I’ve grown a lot stronger because of it, though, and have built a strong foundation.
Golf makes you question things and because of that, I figured out a lot of things I needed to do better.
I also came to a big realization. I found that exceptionalism is something that today we are all obsessed with. Everyone is obsessed with exceptionalism and with social media and global interconnection and everything. We really only hear about the things that are so far off the end of the bell curve. Guys like Morikawa and Wolff. They are the exception in golf. This year I came to the realization that that is an impossible standard to hold myself to. Exceptional people are, by definition, the exception to the rule.
There was a moment where I came to the conclusion to stop trying to hold myself to impossible standards. That’s when I really started to see that vast improvement.
RA: How did you come to that conclusion? Was it gradual?
MM: I think everyone has their own path. I read this article on how, everything, the media, the news, is all focusing on things that are so outside the realm of our normal day-to-day lives. We read about murders and just horrible things happening. And it's just the crazy, the obscene and the absurd are the things we're obsessed with nowadays.
When I really started to think about what an exceptional person was, I just wanted to try to do things exceptionally well. I didn't have to be an exception. I wanted to hold myself to the highest standard of integrity, effort, work ethic. And those are better standards to hold myself to than being exceptional.
RA: A little lighter topic. You’re dating LPGA star Danielle Kang. What's it like being in a golf-centric relationship?
MM: First of all, it's not a very private relationship, we'll put it that way. (Laugh)
The first time she tagged me in an Instagram post, I got about 500 new followers. So, I think we know who the popular one is in the relationship!
It’s fantastic. She has helped me so much on and off the golf course. Honestly, I spend way more time at the golf course with her than I did previously on my own. We’ll just get lost in two or three hours of short game competition or just go play. It’s fun to have a practicing and playing companion.
She also understands all of the pressures and struggles that come with being a professional golfer. This is her ninth season as a professional. She’s a major champion and two-time winner. She understands it and knows exactly where I’m coming from.
RA: Who wins most of those short game competitions?
MM: (Laugh) They’re pretty tight. She's got the edge on the last couple of putting contests. We’ll definitely have a rematch when I get home.