Why Stanford star Maverick McNealy decided to go pro

Maverick McNealy has played in nine professional events as an amateur, including the U.S. Open and The Open this past summer Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Matching one of Tiger Woods' amateur milestones would seem to be a pretty good indicator of success. So, after Maverick McNealy joined Woods with 11 collegiate tournament victories during his tenure at Stanford, the 21-year-old stamped himself as a can't-miss professional prospect.

But aside from the usual disclaimers associated with amateur trophies not necessarily guaranteeing pro riches, McNealy was still unsure he wanted to take that path.

For the better part of two years, after qualifying for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and having a standout sophomore season that saw him win five times, McNealy mulled his next move. Would he turn pro, try to compete at high-level amateur golf or go into business like his father, Scott, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems?

The final decision did not come until after college graduation -- with a degree in management science and engineering -- as McNealy announced last month that this weekend's Walker Cup would be his final amateur event.

These are the typical steps taken by aspiring pros who played high-level collegiate golf. But as late as last spring, McNealy was still pondering his future, especially after he convened a meeting of those closest to him.

McNealy said he got together in January with his dad, his mom, Conrad Ray, his coach at Stanford and his swing instructor Alex Murray. He told them he was ready to commit to a pro career and wanted to map out the best way to go about it.

That's when Scott McNealy challenged his son by pointing out all the reasons he should not turn pro.

"But Dad is the best devil's advocate," McNealy said. "That turned my world upside down. I thought about it really hard and I eventually decided this is still something I want to do. And my dad said, 'That's all I wanted, was for you to think hard and really make a fully thought-out decision.'"

Scott McNealy said he told Maverick to look at the big picture, that a place in the business world potentially awaited him, too.

"He earned a four-year engineering and MBA-like degree while tying Tiger and Patrick [Rodgers, for career wins at Stanford] and winning just about every award he could," he said. "If he wants to go take five years or seven years and give this a heck of a run, he's earned it. I'm totally supportive. I just wanted him to understand if he wants to be the next Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerberg ... those guys got started when they were 17."

In that regard, Maverick McNealy is catching up as a golfer, too.

McNealy won five times and was the college player of the year in 2015. He at times has been ranked the world's No. 1 amateur. He's played in nine professional events as an amateur, including the U.S. Open and The Open this past summer, with his best finish a tie for 44th at the John Deere Classic. His 11 wins at Stanford matched the total of Woods and Rodgers.

But for all his success, he is not nearly as seasoned as others who have come out of college or left school early.

"Maverick was taking finals on the Tuesday before playing in the U.S. Open," Scott McNealy said. "So, I've also explained to him, 'You are 3-to-4 years behind despite what you've been able to do.' Justin Rose went pro at 17. Jon Rahm has been killing the world. Look at Jordan Spieth [who left the University of Texas after one year]. 'While you were studying, they've been out there winning tournaments. You'll be a couple to three years behind everybody.'"

Nonetheless, McNealy is keen to take advantage of the opportunities he has before him.

He will make his pro debut next month at the Safeway Open, the first tournament of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season. He has entered the event on a sponsor's exemption. He is also receiving exemptions for the Farmers Insurance Open, AT&T Pebble Beach, the Byron Nelson, Colonial and the Shriner's Open in Las Vegas, where he recently moved from his home in Northern California. From there, it will be a mixture of Web.com Tour Qualifying School (he is exempt into the second stage) and perhaps securing other sponsor exemptions.

McNealy will be allowed up to seven, and if he can equal the 150th finisher in FedEx Cup points from 2016-17 (approximately 269 points), he will be a special temporary member of the PGA Tour and eligible for unlimited exemptions. That would then give him a shot at securing his PGA Tour card for 2018-19 without worrying about the Web.com. He will also be represented by P3Sports Reps and is set to announce equipment and clothing deals by the end of the month.

But first there is one last amateur competition, and it's a big one -- the 46th Walker Cup at Los Angeles Country Club, where the U.S. side could be expected to play with some motivation after a defeat at Royal Lytham & St. Anne's two years ago. McNealy is the only returning member of the U.S. team from that 2015 squad.

"I'm just trying to give myself as many chances as possible," said McNealy. "Hopefully I'll have some sort of status from the Web.com if I don't have unlimited starts, and I can also try and Monday qualify, too."

McNealy brings a unique perspective to the pro game. Finances are seemingly not an issue (Sun Microsystems was sold for $7.4 billion in 2010), hence McNealy's thoughts of remaining an amateur.

For a time, he considered the elite route, trying to play in big amateur events and a few professional tournaments while juggling a business career. There was also a fleeting thought of trying to play professional golf as an amateur.

McNealy and his father approached golf's governing bodies about setting up a foundation where Maverick's winnings would be paid and dispersed to charity, minus expenses. "Even though it would not have been to his own benefit, we couldn't get the folks who call you an amateur to call you an amateur,'' Scott McNealy said.

And then there was also the notion of simply going to work and leaving golf as a leisurely pursuit.

Maverick McNealy had big dreams in that arena, too. Private equity. Investment banking. Venture capital. "I really wasn't picky," he said. And given his father's success and his Stanford degree, it was no stretch to believe he'd find a good path there, too.

But, ultimately, golf and the allure of getting better and competing against the best in the world was too big to pass up. And that still means starting with next to nothing other than a name that will get him some sponsor exemptions and the second stage of Web.com Q-School.

"Those guys are really good at what they do," McNealy said of the pros he will soon be competing against. "That's why they are the best in the world. The margins are so fine out there. In college, if you make a birdie, you might jump five or six spots. In the pros, it's 12 or 13 spots sometimes. You can go from one inside the cut line to one or two off the lead. Every shot matters so much.

"Everything has to be that little bit sharper. At the end of the day, it's still golf, and that's what I love doing every day."