The ball was sitting in a pot bunker. Hunter Stewart was standing outside of it.
It was a textbook example of the awkward lies that can occur on the links courses of Great Britain & Ireland. Stewart hadn’t hit the ball there, but it was his job to extricate it.
Maverick McNealy struck the tee shot that wound up in this trap. It was on the first hole of their first match of the Walker Cup, a competition that pits the United States’ best amateurs against their peers from GB&I.
“Brutal” is how McNealy described the lie Stewart faced.
“I put him in some really bad spots that first day in alternate shot,” McNealy recalled recently. “His first shot of the entire Walker Cup, he was standing on his head.”
Six years later, Stewart is still trying to help McNealy get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible, but in a much different capacity. McNealy is in his second year on the PGA TOUR while Stewart, who has an economics degree from Vanderbilt, is in his second season working as a strategy consultant for TOUR players.
Stewart’s statistical analysis speaks the language of McNealy, a Northern California native who brings a Silicon Valley ethos to his career.
“He’s always coming up with ideas and ways to get better,” Stewart said. “He innovates himself.”
McNealy finished 68th in the FedExCup last year. He made the cut in 17 of 23 starts, including six top-25s. A fifth-place finish at last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was his best of the season. The 25-year-old has four top-25s this season and is 87th in the FedExCup.
McNealy has seen some of his peers enter the winner’s circle before him, but he derives satisfaction from the improvement he’s seen since turning pro. The son of former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, Maverick expressed interest in entering the business world after college. Knowing he could still get better – even after a stellar career at Stanford, where was the NCAA player of the year, won 11 times and was and a two-time Walker Cupper – was a deciding factor in turning pro.
“I’ve been asked when do I think I wouldn’t want to play golf anymore and the answer is, ‘When I don’t think I can get any better, when there’s no stone unturned,’” McNealy said recently. “I love the fact that there’s always room to improve.”
Scott McNealy used to roam the hallways of Sun and ask, “If you were CEO for a day, what would you do?” Maverick does the same with his employees, conducting annual interviews where each member of his team reviews their performance and his.
“I ask, ‘How did the year go? What did you do well? Where did you struggle? Is there anything you need to do your job better? And, if you were me, what do you think you would do differently on and off the golf course?” McNealy said. “My dad said one of the most important things you can do is listen and give your employees a chance to talk openly and freely.”
Stewart said McNealy runs his team “like a business, and he’s the CEO. He’s a businessman who happens to be a PGA TOUR player.
Inside the PGA TOUR
Maverick McNealy all business inside and outside the ropes
“Everyone has a role, and he’s made it very easy for everyone on his team to do their job to the fullest. That’s great leadership on his part.”
McNealy’s swing instructor is Butch Harmon, who helped him sort out his swing when he was struggling with his ball-striking on the Korn Ferry Tour. McNealy has had the same caddie, Travis McAllister, since turning pro. They spent two years together on the KFT before reaching the PGA TOUR. “He’s very detail-oriented and probably more of a perfectionist than I am,” McNealy said.
Susie Meyers is McNealy’s mental coach. While McNealy was recruited out of college by the largest agencies, he decided to sign with Peter Webb, who runs a one-man operation. His trainer Is Scott Norton and physical therapist Jimmy Greathouse helped him recover from a shoulder injury he suffered last year.
Karen Hallstein, who was Scott McNealy’s secretary, helps Maverick with his travel. And Maverick’s grandfather, Paul Ingemanson, is his financial adviser.
“He’ll let me know if there’s a $5 fee on one of my credit cards that shouldn’t be there,” McNealy said. “I’m still driving my mom’s 2011 Ford Explorer and I have A-list preferred status on Southwest. I think a lot of my spending habits come from my grandpa.”
Stewart is one of the newest additions to the team.
He’s not the first person to parse the ShotLink data to help players save shots, but he’s the only one with a top-10 finish on TOUR. Stewart finished 10th in the 2015 Mayakoba Golf Classic, just his third TOUR start as a pro. Earlier that year, he finished third in the NCAA Championship, behind only future TOUR winners Bryson DeChambeau and C.T. Pan. Stewart’s pro career stalled out on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada and in 2019 he decided to change careers.
“I’m just trying to help them do the right thing on each shot,” Stewart said. “It might not work on every shot because that’s golf but the goal is to increase the probability of success.”
Stewart doesn’t just help his players pick the right play on the course. He helps them set their schedule with events that fit their skillset, determine specific shots to focus on in practice rounds and set practice routines based on the state of their game and what an upcoming course may require.
His goal is to help his clients save one stroke per tournament. That may not sound like much but it can have a huge impact on a player’s season. McNealy uses the 12th hole at Detroit Golf Club, site of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, as tangible evidence of Stewart’s impact.
Stewart uses ShotLink to look at putts that players seem to consistently misread. In the practice rounds at Detroit GC, Stewart instructed McNealy to hit putts from a specific spot to the Sunday hole location. “When he tells me that, I know it’s because guys never make that putt,” McNealy said. He badly misread his first attempt but made an 18-footer on the same line when it mattered on Sunday. He finished T8, one of three top-10s last season.
Stewart, a former SEC Conference Player of the Year and Kentucky native, also helps McNealy with his short game, especially with shots from the Bermudagrass common in the South.
McNealy has learned to focus on shoring up his strengths instead of trying to fix every weakness. Stewart used Strokes Gained to devise a “winning formula” for McNealy, who was ninth in Strokes Gained: Putting last season. If he putts well, then he can garner a good finish by not losing strokes in Strokes Gained: Approach and avoiding penalty strokes with his driver.
“I’m not in the business of asking guys to become something that they’re not,” Stewart said. “I think a lot of times people get bogged down in trying to become the best player in the world. The Tiger effect has skewed everyone’s view of success in golf. I’m not saying we should limit what we try to do, but just because the Tigers and the Rorys of the world are winning all the time – they’re great measuring sticks, but you shouldn’t let that barometer of their success rob you of the joy of becoming the best player you can be.”
It’s a journey that McNealy has enjoyed as he pursues his first PGA TOUR win.