Finding contentment, and a famous swing coach, helped McNealy get on TOUR
September 24, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
Maverick McNealy's confidence grows with each event on the PGA TOUR
Contentment, and one of the game’s greatest coaches, helped Maverick McNealy join his peers on the PGA TOUR after two trying seasons.
McNealy turned pro in 2017 after compiling one of the most impressive amateur resumes of the decade. He reached No. 1 in the world amateur ranking and represented the United States on two Walker Cup teams. He won both the Hogan and Haskins awards and shares Stanford’s school wins record with Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers.
McNealy is still just 23 years old. Even in today’s youth-obsessed game, that’s considered ahead of the curve. This was a unique season on the PGA TOUR, though. Two of his teammates from the 2017 Walker Cup – Cameron Champ and Collin Morikawa – won tournaments. Matthew Wolff did, as well, just weeks after winning the NCAA Championship. McNealy admits that it was tough to not make comparisons and wonder why he didn’t have the same quick success. He knew others certainly were.
“I found two gray hairs,” McNealy, who turns 24 in November, joked recently.
That wasn’t a remark on his age, however. Struggles with his driver led to a stressful first season on the Korn Ferry Tour. McNealy saw progress after taking his first lesson from Butch Harmon earlier this year.
There were changes to McNealy’s mental game, as well. He’s accepted the difference between contentment and complacency. He used to fear the former would lead to the latter.
McNealy is playing his third event as a PGA TOUR member at this week’s Safeway Open, not far from his hometown and alma mater. We’ll let him describe his journey to the PGA TOUR in his own words (Note: conversation condensed for space and clarity).
Maverick McNealy chips in for birdie at The Greenbrier
PGATOUR.COM: You struggled towards the end of your first season. How bad did it get?
Maverick McNealy: “Last year, at the end of the season, I was in a really bad place. I had a really hard time with my ball-striking. I was really stuck underneath and had this really bad right block. It became mental.
“There was a week there where I came home to Vegas and I lost two dozen golf balls in a week. I just couldn’t hit a fairway. When it got to Columbus (for the opening event of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals), I told my caddie, ‘I don’t know if I can play. I don’t know if I should keep going.’ He told me, ‘Just get your butt on an airplane.’ It was a heroic effort to make the cut in Columbus. I missed the rest of the cuts in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, but that was kind of the turning point.”
PGATOUR.COM: What did you learn from those struggles?
McNealy: “I learned that, to be successful in this game, there are going to be highs and lows. You have to be able to get through the lows and there has to be a purpose for the struggle.
“There are plenty of bad reasons to play professional golf, and I needed a really good one. I came to two reasons why. One, I think golf tests you in a lot of ways and makes you become a lot better. Golf amplifies all these emotions you feel, so you have to be better. This process of struggling and having to do things better ended up being why I love playing professional golf because it makes you have to improve. I love the negative side of it more now.
“The second reason was I like to make a difference and make an impact and do good, and that’s also a driving reason for why I’m playing golf. I started Birdies for Education this year because, in high school, I did my volunteer hours with Curriki. It’s a non-profit for K-12 educational materials, trying to lower the cost of education and make high-quality education available to everybody. We ended up raising $385,000 for Curriki this year.”
PGATOUR.COM: Was it difficult to not compare yourself to some of the young players who had quick success on the PGA TOUR in 2019?
McNealy: “Definitely. The thing that helped me process all that was being OK with where I am. It’s not complacency. It’s completely different. I have to be content with where I am. That does not affect my drive to improve and get to the next level in any way.
“Exceptionalism is an impossible standard to hold yourself to. It’s something to strive for, but by definition it’s an exception. Nowadays we are so obsessed with everything that is an anomaly. With social media and news and everything, we hear about the farthest ends of the bell curve. That’s the hardest thing to compare yourself to. I just said, ‘I am where my feet are. I am where I am, I’m happy with where I am, and I’m going to try as hard as I possibly can to get better and improve.’”
PGATOUR.COM: Was last year stressful?
McNealy: “One hundred percent. Through my senior year of college and the first year-and-a-half as a pro, I didn’t deal with expectations, self-imposed or external, very well. I was living in the world of have-to instead of want-to.”
PGATOUR.COM: When did that change?
McNealy: “It was the middle of this year. My whole life, I’ve felt pressure to be exceptional. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and such great advantages that I have to do something with them. If I’m in school, I have to get As. If I’m in the business world, I have to be a world-beater. If I’m in golf, I have to do something special. I said to myself, ‘I’m 23 years old and in my second season on the Korn Ferry Tour and in the worst case I’ll be in my third season next year. That’s pretty good.’”
Maverick McNealy holes out for eagle at The Greenbrier
PGATOUR.COM: You’re very introspective. What are some ways you analyze your game?
McNealy: “I write down the details of every shot I hit in my pin sheet. I can go back to any pin sheet – which I save and scan and have them all stored – and I’ll be able to remember every shot I’ve hit at every golf course.
“And I write down an overview of how the day went. How my warm-up was, how I was feeling, how the round went, what I did well, what I struggled with, any feels I was thinking of, anything that helped me play a certain shot, anything about the golf course that I found noteworthy and what I worked on after the round. I have that all logged for every tournament. I like to answer the question, ‘Why?’”
PGATOUR.COM: Your girlfriend, LPGA player Danielle Kang, helped you get connected with Butch Harmon. How did that come about?
McNealy: “Danielle told me, ‘By the way, Butch mentioned that if you ever wanted to come in and see him, he’d take a look.’ I said, ‘Oh, really? He would?’ I went and saw him and three golf balls in he said he knew what I was doing.
“Honored and humbled are two very overused words, but honestly I am that I get to work with him. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn from one of, if not the greatest, golf minds of the last 50 years. It’s pretty cool. I’m just going to try to learn as much as I can from him and be a sponge and work really, really hard.
PGATOUR.COM: What did Butch recognize in your swing?
McNealy: “Butch makes everything really, really simple. He helped me to de-clutter. I was stuck between feels. I had a different feel every day. Basically, I was backing up. The upper-body was moving back and the club was moving forward. That brought in a two-way miss. I’d miss it left because I was afraid of blocking it right.
“He said three things: On the backswing, load right. Go left on the downswing, and stand a bit taller with the driver. Three days in, I said, ‘Wow, this is the first time I’ve worked on the same thing for three days and it’s gotten better all three days and it’s felt better every single day.”