Maverick McNealy’s rollercoaster second round at the Fortinet Championship and being a man on a mission this season

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NAPA, Calif. – When Maverick McNealy closed with a 77 in the final round of the BMW Championship, his 2020-21 PGA Tour season ended on a sour note. That snapped a streak of seven consecutive finishes inside the top 30, and suddenly the bloom was off the rose of the 25-year-old McNealy’s best season to date.

He flew home to Las Vegas, got up the next morning early and went right back to work.

“I’m a guy that’s motivated by not playing how I want to sometimes,” he said.

The PGA Tour’s 11-day off-season ended and perhaps no one was happier than McNealy to get back to his office, especially at one of his favorite Tour stops. McNealy played at Silverado Resort & Spa in 2017 while attending nearby Stanford University and in 2018 made his pro debut here. On Friday, he followed up a 4-under 68 with an 8-under 64 to grab a two-stroke lead at the Fortinet Championship over Beau Hossler and Mito Pereira with a 36-hole total of 12-under 132.

McNealy’s scorecard in the second round included a wild back nine filled with three bogeys in a row after making the turn in 31, followed by four straight birdies, a lone par and chip-in for eagle at the last.

“It was crazy,” McNealy said. “It was a tale of two nines.”

But while his round was the result of several unpredictable shots and breaks both good and bad, McNealy considered his good play the result of hard work and good old-fashioned tenacity.

“I think days like today aren’t a product of something I changed today, I think it’s a product of putting in a lot of work,” he said. “I think my average wake-up time this summer has been between 5:00 and 5:30. I get up early, get to work, practice, work out, eat right and have been really disciplined and really focused and I feel like I’m a better golfer than I was six months ago.”

For the past few years, McNealy undertook a thorough reappraisal of his technique and analysis of the mechanics of golf with instructor Butch Harmon. As a sign of how comfortable he has become with his game, he said he hadn’t seen his coach last week.

“But that’s a great thing because I’m swinging it the way I want to,” he said. “At this point we’re just telling jokes and hitting wedges.”

McNealy is a man on a mission. He entered the week ranked No. 113 in the world and still harbors an ambitious goal to reach No. 1 someday. First, he’d like to work his way into the top 64 and earn a spot in the WGC Match Play and then crack the top 50, which offers exemptions into many of the biggest tournaments. Asked to name his goals for the new season, he highlighted making it to East Lake for the Tour Championship as one of the top 30 in the FedEx Cup.

“I think that’s a fantastic benchmark for the elite players in this game, but I also want to win,” he said. “That’s something I wake up every day and motivates me. I just want to keep getting better and I want to improve my game and improve my skill set to the point where I will win. Just got to keep giving myself opportunities.”

That lingering bad taste in McNealy’s mouth after the 77 at the BMW had him texting his longtime caddie Travis McAllister and saying that he was going to take care of business this season and get back to beating some of the players he used to dominate when he was the world’s No. 1 amateur. McNealy took possession of the keys to his first house Friday and planned to move into his new address next week. The reason he upgraded from the 1,200-square-foot pad that he’d been calling home along with roommate Joseph Bramlett and a former Stanford baseball player had nothing to do with the need for a better man cave. This was an investment in himself to achieve his goals. McNealy is going to install a TrackMan room, where he can work on his game at all hours. It’s why he’s hired Hunter Stewart, his former Walker Cup teammate, to handle data analytics for him and why he’s often the first on the tee at 5:50 a.m. at TPC Las Vegas when he isn’t competing in tournaments.

On Friday, McNealy, starting at No. 10, birdied five holes on the front nine and played, to use the word he chose to describe it, “flawlessly.” Then his round went haywire.

“I got to the first hole and funny lie in the right rough and dumped it in the bunker and shanked the bunker shot, got up and down for bogey and then bogeyed the next two. I was kind of going, oh, man, this is going the wrong way quick,” McNealy said.

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At the second, he horseshoed a 6-foot par putt and one hole later, his drive drifted right, hit a tree and rolled down the cart path about 50 yards.

“Actually, I think a golf cart ran over my ball so I had to take a drop,” McNealy said. “It was just kind of how that 45 minutes was going.”

Somehow, he managed to right the ship in impressive fashion. McNealy said the birdie he made at the fourth hole was the turning point of his round. He had 91 yards to the hole and had to clear a pair of menacing bunkers with his wedge approach.

“My caddie, Travis, did his homework, he got me a great cover number that I felt really good about and really confident, had a perfect lob wedge right in there and made a good putt and that got things going the right way for me,” said McNealy of the first of four straight birdies.

For his final birdie of the day, he holed a bunker shot at No. 7 with his 60-degree wedge. But he wasn’t done yet. He chipped in from 74 feet short of the green at the par-5 ninth for eagle.

“I was actually a little nervous because it looked like it landed in a pitch mark and then shot forward and right,” he said. “Turns out it was a great kick.”

Just the type of break that McNealy knows he might need this week if the Northern California native is going to claim his maiden victory not far from where he grew up and attended college with family and friends in his gallery.

“Yeah, it’s great to be at the top of the leaderboard now,” McNealy said, “but it means a heck of a lot more to be at the top at the end of 72 holes.”

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