AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) – This didn’t appear to be a fight on paper, but the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play field is littered with paper lions.
Despite best efforts to portray it as golf’s version of the NCAA Tournament, this isn’t March Madness. The seedings for the WGC-Match Play are just that: rough suggestions. Even by those low standards, Maverick McNealy, the final man in this week’s field, is unlikely to have received much love in many brackets.
McNealy was 70th in the world ranking when the field was selected two weeks ago. He’d plummeted to 74th place a week later, and the 26-year-chances old’s of making the field were so slim that he made sure to have a backup plan in place.
“If I hadn’t made it into the World Golf Championship, I would have gone to Punta Cana,” McNealy remarked when questioned about his plans.
He was still planning to play the WGC-Match Play and the Corales Puntacana Championship, the Tour’s opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic, on Sunday, but he’d flown to Austin for a practice round and, perhaps more importantly, to see his brothers.
“On Sunday night, I was watching my brother’s adult league hockey game when I got a phone from my agent, then we got a call from Sam Burns’ agent saying he was going to withdraw from this week,” McNealy explained.
McNealy was officially added to the WGC-Match Play field on Monday as the 64th seed, which should make his Day 1 match against Joaquin Niemann, the 14th seed, a one-sided affair.
It was definitely one-sided, with McNealy leading 5-up after playing his first seven holes in 4 under par. He required only 12 holes to finish his match for an 8-and-6 thwart in his maiden start in the event.
“All I wanted to do was keep the pedal to the metal and make sure he didn’t get the chance,” McNealy said.
This opportunity for McNealy, a third-year PGA Tour player, goes far beyond a “paper” upset or even the perks of playing in a limited-field event for guaranteed money and FedExCup points. On a macro level, this is where he wants to be.
In his opinion, the Tour is divided into three distinct circuits.
“There’s the I-Just-Got-On-Tour tour,” he added, “where you’re playing in the Korn Ferry category and reshuffling and playing whenever you get the chance.” “After that, the top 125 get to pick and choose their schedule, but invitationals, WGCs, and majors aren’t always guaranteed.”
“Then there’s the Tour, which the best 50 players in the world play, in which they compete in all four majors, all four invitationals, and all four WGCs, and then they pick and choose a number of favorite other events to fill the rest of their schedule.”
McNealy is aiming for the latter, and even an 11th-hour inclusion to the WGC-Match Play field is a step in the right direction. His ascent began last fall with a runner-up result at the Fortinet Championship, and he’s been remarkably consistent since then, with only one missed cut in a dozen starts.
McNealy’s win on Day 1 in Austin may not have been a true upset, but it did tick off a few boxes. Niemann is ranked 18th in the world and won the Genesis Invitational, one of the most spectacular victories of the season. It’s also worth mentioning that it happened in the first organized match-play event McNealy had participated in in over a decade.
Although he said he receives plenty of match-play practice at home, he noted the 2017 Walker Cup was his final official match-play event.
“Every week for $5 birds or whatever it is at home.” “There are a lot of good guys to compete with at home in Vegas,” he remarked. “I do a lot of match play,” says the player.
The fact that McNealy’s breakthrough happened the same week as an unplanned family reunion just added to what had already been a memorable week. Colt, the oldest of the four McNealy brothers, won the hockey game on Sunday, and Scout, the youngest of the four, is in his third year of statistics at Baylor (Dakota is the fourth McNealy sibling and lives in Nevada) and spent the night on McNealy’s couch.
“I’m the family’s dumb jock,” McNealy joked.
Scout could certainly explain why his brother’s Day 1 rout wasn’t an upset, at least not in the sense that we celebrate during March Madness, given his statistics background.
However, after a tumultuous few days, Maverick McNealy is beginning to resemble a Cinderella narrative.
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