After a standout collegiate career at Stanford University, where he won 11 times to match Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers for the school record, Maverick McNealy was pegged throughout the golf media as one of the game’s rising stars, and deservingly so.
But as McNealy himself likes to say, golf is the ultimate meritocracy. The ball doesn’t know, or care, who you are or what you’ve done.
The California native earned 2018 Web.com (now Korn Ferry) Tour status via his first foray at Q-School, then finished No. 65 on the Regular Season money list in his first full season as a pro (the Korn Ferry Tour’s final year in using money for Order of Merit, before moving to a Points-based system in 2019). It was a solid rookie season, but he was well outside The 25.
In order to take the next step, secure a spot in The 25 and his first PGA TOUR card, McNealy went back to the roots.
The 23-year-old grew up with three younger brothers—Dakota, Colt and Scout—in a family dynamic that fostered competition. This past offseason, McNealy focused a large portion of his practice efforts on the course, with his brothers—playing, scoring, competing.
After recording a career-best runner-up finish at the LECOM Suncoast Classic in February, where he posted a 72-hole total of 24-under, McNealy credited this offseason approach for moving his game in the right direction as he eyes the PGA TOUR.
“I got back to doing what got me good in the first place, which is playing holes and holes with my brothers,” McNealy said that Sunday afternoon at Lakewood National GC.
“I think I’m just in a really good place mentally. That’s really helped me out this year, and I’m just going to keep plugging along. My mantra this year has been, ‘You are where your feet are,’ and anything in front or behind you will just mess with you.”
A sound mantra to have, as the Korn Ferry Tour features 20 consecutive weeks of competition (17 Regular Season, three Finals), from mid-April through Labor Day, commencing at the inaugural Robert Trent Jones Trail Championship, April 18-21, and concluding at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, contested for the first time at Victoria National GC outside Evansville, Ind., Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
With the top 25 on the Regular Season money list (The 25), and the top 25 on the Korn Ferry Tour Finals money list (The Finals 25), earning PGA TOUR membership for the 2019-20 season, there’s no shortage of motivation as players like McNealy strive to secure their first opportunity at the highest level of competitive golf.
Fellow up-and-comers like Doug Ghim, Vincent Whaley and John Oda won’t make it easy.
Ghim, 22, played collegiately at the University of Texas, also finishing runner-up at the 2017 U.S. Amateur to earn invitations to the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open.
The Chicago-area native announced himself as a Korn Ferry Tour contender with a tie for third at the Country Club de Bogota Championship in early February, a week after finishing T20 at the TOUR’s Farmers Insurance Open and then crossing three time zones to get to Bogota.
Whaley, 24, played collegiately at Georgia Tech, where he was inspired and mentored by older teammates Anders Albertson and Seth Reeves (Korn Ferry Tour graduates and current TOUR members), as well as Yellow Jacket alums like Ollie Schneiderjans and Roberto Castro.
A large part of the Georgia Tech community stays in Atlanta after graduation, and Whaley has taken advantage career-wise—after advancing through Final Stage of Q-School in December, he had a three-hour lunch with Albertson and Castro, where they shared perspective on the Korn Ferry Tour, including travel particulars like where to stay and where to eat.
In just his second career Korn Ferry Tour start, Whaley finished runner-up at The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic at The Abaco Club in January, a massive stride toward The 25.
Oda, 22, played collegiately at UNLV, and found quick professional success via a third-place finish at the TOUR’s Barracuda Championship this past August. The Hawaii native gained Korn Ferry Tour Finals entry via TOUR non-member FedExCup points but struggled, and he successfully advanced through Q-School with determination to maximize his potential in 2019.
The former ukulele player opened 2019 with back-to-back top-five finishes in the Bahamas.
Oda and the rest will strive to play the right strings as they chase future TOUR status.
This article first appeared in the PGA TOUR June-November 2019 issue, which can be read here.