In his first real test as a professional golfer, last fall’s Web.com Tour Qualifying School, Maverick McNealy walked away with two rewards he’s hoping come in handy in the transition from hot-shot amateur golfer to aspiring tour pro. One was tangible: Playing privileges through the first few months of 2018 on the Web.com Tour. The other, only the 22-year-old Stanford graduate can measure: Confidence that he belongs among the play-for-pay set.
Thanks to a T-10 showing in the final stage of Q school, McNealy is guaranteed spots in the year’s first 12 Web.com Tour events. That, in turn, has given the former college player of the year and two-time U.S. Walker Cup team member the luxury to bypass a few early events and play the next month on the PGA Tour using sponsor’s exemptions. His moonlighting begins this week with a spot in the field at the CareerBuilder Challenge and continues at Farmers Insurance Open and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. (He’ll also try to Monday qualify for the Waste Management Phoenix Open.)
Ideally, McNealy can earn enough FedEx Cup points to bypass playing the Web.com Tour altogether. But having the developmental tour as a fallback gives him the chance to play loose in the coming month.
“A personal goal of mine is to try to get 80 points through these sponsor’s invites, which will guarantee me into the Web.com Tour finals,” McNealy said. He would then go back and play six straight Web.com Tour events, where he hopes to earn enough money to put himself in shape on the money list to earn a PGA Tour card for the next season before the Web.com Final Series even takes place.
If his performance at Q school—coming just a few months after turning professional and moving from his home in northern California to Las Vegas—made the plan possible, it’s memories of that accomplishment that have McNealy believing it’s realistic.
It began with a top-10 finish during second stage a Craig Ranch outside Dallas, where wicked weather made the already pressure-packed four rounds even more tense. “The first day, I was wearing four jackets and couldn’t feel my hands,” McNealy said. “And the second day, it rained non-stop for the entire six-hour round.”
He faced the exact opposite conditions in the final stage in Arizona, needing to go low to keep pace. A 64-67 close let him jump into the top 10, a critical move in that it increased his guaranteed Web.com starts from eight to 12.
“I felt like my golf game matured two years in those two events right there,” McNealy said. “I felt like I really succeeded and accomplished my goal. I also felt like I proved to myself I can be gritty, I can be tough and I can grind out rounds under the gun in tough conditions when I need to. That was a huge confidence boost there.”
The performance proved particularly rewarding after McNealy struggled in the early days after turning pro in September. In college, where his accomplishments included tying Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers for the school record with 11 individual victories, McNealy benefited from the structured environment that helped him gradually and continually improve his game. That vanished when he turned pro, something the management science and engineer major who contemplated forgoing pro golf altogether after graduation to enter the business world after school didn’t anticipate.
“The first few months as a pro, there is just so much going on that I had no direction,” McNealy said. “I had no idea what to do. It was almost an insurmountable task that was so … borderline paralyzing. I wake up and I’d say I need to get better in golf, these guys are really good, and I don’t know where to start.”
A T-52 finish at the Safeway Open and missed cut at the Shriners Hospital for Children’s Open, along with the second stage in Texas, helped him focus his work on two areas: improve the consistency of his ball flight and the pace of his putting. McNealy experimented with a cross-handed stroke that he says solve the later problem.
McNealy has since settle into Vegas, where he shares a place near TPC Summerlin with a college pal, Seattle Mariners’ prospect Chris Castellanos. His days includes making his usual breakfast—three fried eggs, two pieces of wheat toast and an avocado on top—before heading out to The Summit, where he tends to be the first person on the range at 8:30. By 9, he’s starting his morning round, often playing by himself and setting up various games to stay sharp. In the afternoon, he logs more range time before working out in the early evening at Summerlin.
“I tell myself when I’m leaving the golf course, if I can’t see the lights on the Wynn casino I’ve left too early,” McNealy said.
The question now is whether all those long hours the past few months will pay off in more tangible results. McNealy see guys he played with in college—most notably Jon Rahm, his Pac-12 rival from Arizona State—making the immediate leap to the PGA Tour and appreciates how they’ve forged a path to success. More importantly, McNealy is confident he too knows the way.