Maverick in 'the coolest office in the world'

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — The issue is less one of ambition than it is of inevitability. Greatness must not be denied. Which is why a half century ago, the big guy from Ohio — Jack Nicklaus, by name — turned pro despite proclaimed intentions of remaining amateur, selling insurance and playing golf for the joy and glory of it.

Which is why Maverick McNealy, who also had so many reasons to stay amateur, made that 180-degree turn you just knew was coming. And, with KPMG on his cap (like Phil Mickelson) and Under Armour as his attire (like Jordan Spieth), suddenly was playing as a pro.

Nicklaus, arguably the greatest player of all time (yes, Tiger Woods supporters will be allowed to disagree), idolized Bobby Jones, who as an amateur in 1930 won the Grand Slam.

So, thought Jack, maybe he could repeat the accomplishment. But the Grand Slam — the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British amateurs — has changed, with the PGA Championship and Masters replacing the two amateurs.

Golf also has changed. Like baseball, football, soccer, basketball and hockey, only the very best find room at the top. Nicklaus couldn’t stay amateur if he wanted to conquer the sport. Nor, five and a half decades later, could McNealy, the young star (age 21) from Stanford.

The Safeway Open this week at Silverado Country Club is McNealy’s first tournament since becoming a pro, though not his first pro tournament, since he has competed in the U.S. and British Opens and several other events. Two rounds in after Friday, McNealy is doing well enough, five-under par 68-71—139, seven back of the leader, Tyler Duncan.

McNealy had been high on the leader board, seven under par after his 16th hole, the 350-yard 8th since he played the back nine first. But he botched the drive and after taking a penalty shot for an unplayable lie and five more shots including two putts, McNealy had a triple-bogey 7. Stirred but not shaken, he birdied the par-5 ninth.

“I made a mess of No. 8,” agreed McNealy, “but I did a good job of staying level and not getting out of my rhythm. And it paid off with a good birdie on the last hole.”

The kid is very much under control, even if an occasional shot might not be. Asked if in the 80-degree weather on a course surrounded by vineyards and history he was having a good time, McNealy quickly responded, “Yeah, this is the coolest office in the world.”

It was 46 years ago, 1971, when another golfer from Stanford made his pro debut at Silverado, which is located some 80 miles north of the campus.

Tom Watson had earned his PGA Tour playing card — something McNealy hasn’t had the chance to do — a few days earlier in Florida, then zoomed back to California to enter what was called the Kaiser International Open. Watson made the cut and in the following years, winning five British Opens, two Masters and the ’82 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, made his mark.

Watson’s father went to Stanford. So did McNealy’s, as a graduate student in the M.B.A. program. From there Scott McNealy became a dot-com billionaire with Sun Microsystems. He also became a fine golfer, down to a 3-handicap, if not as fine as his eldest son.

In late 2016 and early 2017, Maverick was No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. In 2015 he became the third from Stanford, along with Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers, to win the Haskins Award, presented annually to the best male collegiate golfer in the country.

So many trophies. Now so many expectations.

Asked what he learned as a collegian that will carry him to success as a pro, he said, “I think there’s so much you learn about yourself from being in those situations. I played some of my best rounds ever when the heat is on in the final round.

“Obviously these guys are really good. But being in the mix in tournaments is something I’m very familiar with from college.”

But in a sense he’s graduated, to playing the very best, the pros. It was inevitable.

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