News & Opinion

McNealy gives Bay Area fresh hope on Tour

Maverick McNealy counts as the most fascinating rookie on the professional golf landscape this year – and not simply because he’s the son of Silicon Valley titan Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

McNealy favored hockey over golf as a kid, not exactly conventional sporting roots for a promising tour pro. He soared from unheralded college recruit to the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur. And not only did he stay all four years at Stanford, graduating last spring with a degree in management science and engineering, but he seriously contemplated pursuing a career in business rather than turning pro in golf. 

Then, ultimately, the professional game beckoned. 

McNealy wants to discover how good he can become as a golfer – our guess: extraordinarily good, given his amateur success – so he will chase a little white ball rather than the next great technology start-up. He’s in the field this week at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, one of his seven PGA Tour sponsor exemptions for the 2017-18 season. (McNealy begins the year with full status on the Web.com Tour.)

There’s every reason to believe McNealy will find his footing as a pro. He won 11 tournaments for Stanford, matching the school record held by Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers, and routinely dueled with Arizona State’s Jon Rahm, who won the CareerBuilder Challenge on Sunday. Rahm is turning into a pretty fair pro, yes?

McNealy punctuated his amateur career by posting a 4-0 record in leading the U.S. to victory in the Walker Cup in September. 

“I had quite the internship as an amateur,” McNealy said. “I think the best thing I ever did for a professional career was stay amateur and finish my degree. My freshman year, I never thought I would be good enough to play professional golf.”

McNealy extends a rich Stanford lineage, dating to Lawson Little, Sandy Tatum, Bob Rosburg and Tom Watson. More recently, the school sent Woods, Notah Begay, Casey Martin and Rodgers onto the PGA Tour, with varying degrees of success. 

Not surprisingly, McNealy’s early outings as a pro offered mixed results. He briefly seized a share of the second-round lead at the Safeway Open in Napa in October, only to fade on the weekend and finish tied for 52nd. McNealy then missed the cut at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in his new hometown of Las Vegas, shooting 74-75.

But he played well during the first two rounds at last week’s CareerBuilder Challenge at La Quinta, opening 66-68 before missing the 54-hole cut. McNealy plans to play in three other PGA Tour events after this week’s start at Torrey Pines: next month at Pebble Beach and in May at the Byron Nelson and Colonial events in Texas.

McNealy, who grew up Portola Valley, south of San Francisco, could become the finest PGA Tour player from the Bay Area in a long time. The region once produced an assembly line of major champions, headlined by Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi, but the past 40 years mostly have been barren. James Hahn, with two victories, probably is the best Bay Area player on the PGA Tour today. 

Befitting a golfer with Northern California roots, McNealy eagerly eyes the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Feb. 8-11. Once, as a Stanford freshman, he hurriedly traveled across the country so that he could caddie for his dad in the pro-am. Scott McNealy played in the same group as Phil Mickelson that year. 

This time, Scott and Maverick McNealy will play together in the tournament – father and son, notable amateur and a 22-year-old pro worth watching in the years ahead.

“It’s going to be so much fun,” Maverick said.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick