Maverick McNealy takes unexpected flight path back to PGA TOUR competition
8 Min Read
Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
Maverick McNealy narrows his gaze, all business in black baseball cap, black Under Armour T-shirt and cargo shorts as he studies a tablet computer. He's not looking at TrackMan numbers; this is far more important than that. McNealy is sitting in a storage garage at All In Aviation, a flight-training center in Las Vegas, studying an interface dotted with high- and low-pressure areas and elevation changes, akin to a Weather Channel forecast. A blue-and-white, single-engine Cirrus plane sits outside.
McNealy, 27, will be the pilot.
Although it's a sunny August day, he discusses potential "convective SIGMET" (weather-induced turbulence) and "mountain obscuration" as he prepares for a 45-minute solo ride, one that will include a 45-degree banked donut and a simulated emergency descent. He enjoys it immensely, but this isn’t just for fun; McNealy is preparing for an upcoming flight to earn his instrument check rating, which lowers the minimum weather conditions required to fly. He received his private pilot’s license three months prior.
A proven PGA TOUR talent still seeking his first win after two career runner-up finishes, McNealy is fiercely dedicated to his craft, but when he’s away from the course, it’s flight prep that rises to the forefront. Flying isn’t just a hobby, it’s a full-time passion and educational pursuit.
Preparations are finalized and McNealy buckles himself into the pilot's seat and takes flight. He plans to fly to nearby Boulder City but approaches a patch of low clouds and audibles his route – “turns out, I don’t take on much risk when I fly” – to a familiar lakebed. He makes some steep turns and simulates an emergency descent – “when you tip the plane and descend as quickly as possible" – before heading back to home base.
The pre-flight preparation served him well.
“Nobody looks at the weather more than golfers and pilots,” McNealy said, “and I’m both.”
McNealy returns to the PGA TOUR at this week’s World Wide Technology Championship in Mexico, his first start since taking a competitive leave in June to treat a left shoulder injury. He tore a ligament in February, and the injury worsened after an early period of improvement. His rehab process included a mix of physical therapy, swing changes and even regenerative stem-cell treatments, among other components.
McNealy’s rehab was standard in some ways – quarter-swings to half-swings to full swings, with his practice sessions limited by a golfer's version of a pitch count. His time away was also atypical. He passed the necessary exams to receive his private pilot’s license, and took his instrument-check ride in September. Now certified to fly solo through adverse weather conditions, the adopted Las Vegan plans on flying to TOUR events in the southwest like a modern-day Arnold Palmer.
McNealy even got engaged during the competitive hiatus, and he took fiancée Maya Daniels on a flight to Lake Tahoe for the surprise proposal. (Daniels admits to falling asleep on the flight, but that just means she trusts the pilot.)
“He is watching airplane videos any time he doesn’t have a golf club in his hand,” Daniels said. “I don’t know how he has the time or the mental patience to get better at both things consistently … but he’s one of the most determined people I know.”
“I told her, ‘By the way, I’m going to start getting my pilot’s license,’” McNealy remembers telling Daniels. “And she looked at me like I had three heads.”
He stayed true to his word.
McNealy has evolved from a college phenom at Stanford – 11 wins, tying Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers for most all-time for the Cardinal – to a Korn Ferry Tour pro to now a veteran TOUR pro. He's made 112 career TOUR starts and notched two runner-up finishes. Now the focus turns to ascending to the game’s upper tier: Winning, qualifying for Signature Events, contending in majors and representing the U.S. on national teams. He hopes that swing changes implemented during his hiatus – and a rejuvenated mindset – can propel him to the next level.
He's already at a different level, elevation-wise, because when McNealy isn’t fine-tuning or dissecting his game, his head is likely in the metaphorical clouds. The night before his solo flight to earn his private pilot’s license, he spent approximately 90 minutes “chair flying” at home in Las Vegas.
“You close your eyes and you visualize every switch you flip, every maneuver, every air speed indication, every radio call, and you just do it over and over and over," he said. "One lap in the pattern so you set the power, airspeed live, engine instruments agreeing.”
He didn't sleep well (he likened it to sleeping on a lead at a tournament) and arrived at the air park with his adrenaline pumping. Once he started taxiing down the runway, though, the instincts kicked in. This was his comfort zone, fortified through dozens of hours of training. The parallels to golf are easy. He made the cut, so to speak, and earned his certification.
The natural question is how can flying help McNealy’s golf career?
It would be a stretch to say that becoming a pilot has made him a better golfer, he admits. However, he has developed an understanding of aerodynamics that can help him explain how golf balls fly and why they fly farther at altitude.
“You have to know exactly how this thing is going to fly,” McNealy said about airplanes, not golf balls, “because your life depends on it.”
There are, he added, two areas where his passions of golf and flying intersect: performance under pressure and information load management.
“I was an engineering major in school, and I just loved thinking that way,” McNealy said. “If I’m with my instructor and he says, ‘OK, your engine failed, what are you going to do? These flight instruments failed. How are you going to control this airplane and go to a safe landing?’ … The decision-making and execution under pressure; there are ways you feel the airplane, you feel the power the engine’s producing, you’re judging airspeed and pitch angle and glide path and power, all the stuff coming into land, you’re judging the wind, you’re taking the information from a lot of different factors.
“It’s a lot more reactionary than golf, but the same kind of factors you’re looking at.”
McNealy has always enjoyed being up in the air but pinpoints a flight last summer from the Barracuda Championship to the 3M Open as a catalyst. He watched the movie “Rush,” and in the last scene, character Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) talks about why he’s a pilot and why he thinks James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) should be one, too.
Maybe I could do that, McNealy remembers thinking.
As it happened, he was paired with George McNeill, himself already a pilot, during a weather delay at the 3M. McNealy peppered McNeill with questions about flying, and liked what he heard. He started studying that night and elevated his training after last year's FedExCup Playoffs. He was instantly hooked, he said, and the unique silver lining of his injury hiatus was thus: it accelerated his path to becoming a pilot.
“I love the studying and the learning aspect of it, the flying aspect, the focus and the multitasking,” McNealy said. “The first time I went up and my instructor handed me the flight controls, it was all I could do to keep the plane straight and level, and holding down the heading. … It took all my attention to do that.
“And now I flew back from Carson City and I flew through Las Vegas where you’re monitoring two radio frequencies, getting vector height, trying to control an airplane, setting up for descent, listening to weather reports, your flight plan, avoiding different airspace, managing a lot more things. It’s been really fun over the last year to keep training and working.”
He continues to do the same on the golf course. Despite McNealy’s college success, turning pro wasn’t a formality. He knew the work required to play at an elite level, and didn’t want to pursue it unless he was confident that his internal drive would sustain him across a career. The business world was an enticing alternative. Turns out professional golf is very much a business and he has embraced being the de facto CEO of “Team Mav,” comprised of all who contribute to his success.
As McNealy returns from his hiatus, he feels a renewed spark to maximize his abilities on the course – with his new off-course passion serving as an X-factor.
“The reason I love flying is the reason I love golf,” he said before passing his instrument-check ride. “You’re always learning; there’s always room for improvement. And it’s one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. I’m really excited to take this instrument-check ride, because that opens up a whole new way of flying and it’s just fun.
“Every time I get in the airplane, it’s a high, and I don’t think about anything else.”
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.