Maverick McNealy spent the summer traveling the country with one goal in mind: to be better in golf than he was last year as a freshman at Stanford.
Early indications show McNealy is right on target. The Portola Valley resident helped Stanford wins its first tournament of the fall season in Westlake Village by earning medalist honors at the Southwestern Intercollegiate.
McNealy did so by recording the two lowest rounds of the three-day event, opening with a 5-under 66 and finishing with a 6-under 65.
The Cardinal finished fourth at the Fighting Illini tournament last weekend, with McNealy again gracing the top spot of the leaderboard, this time firing three consecutive rounds of 1-over 71 to share medalist honors with Illinois' Dylan Meyer in challenging weather conditions.
McNealty's best result last year was fourth place at The Goodwin, hosted by Stanford and played on a course so familiar it feels like his backyard. Then again, McNealy is a three-time men's club champion at Stanford, winning his first title at age 13.
McNealy recorded three top-10 finishes last year and, with the exception of the NCAA Regional tournament, played consistently well in the shadows of Patrick Rodgers and Cameron Wilson, both of whom have since turned pro.
"I felt like last year I was working on long-term goals," McNealy said. "I made the decision to help me be at my best at the end of the year. The experience helped me play consistent. This year I feel I've gotten a little better."
An improvement, Stanford men's golf coach Conrad Ray attributes to McNealy's willingness to focus on playing a difficult schedule.
"He improved in all areas of his game," said Ray, who led the Cardinal to the 2007 NCAA title and played on the 1994 NCAA championship team at Stanford. "He really improved his putting over the summer. Some of that is experience he garnered from playing the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. He's playing confident."
Without Rodgers and Wilson, McNealy and fellow sophomores Jim Liu and Viraat Badhwar are expected to pick up the slack along with junior David Boote, a native of the United Kingdom who has been representing his country in Europe the first month of the season.
Boote will be with the Cardinal when it travels to Fort Worth, Texas for the Swoosh Invitational Oct. 6-7.
Menlo School grad Patrick Grimes, the lone senior on the team, should be a consistent contributor, as well.
"I think you're going to see the depth of the team this year," McNealy said. "We were deep last year. We had nine good players last year and, unfortunately, not all of them can play."
Three solid freshmen, including Sacred Heart Prep grad Bradley Knox, will be thrown into the mix.
"The fun part is every team is new," Ray said. "Hopefully we have recruited well. Jim Liu is a key part toward building for the future. He came in as the No. 1 recruit and he is a phenomenal player, a junior champion. The sophomore class, I am proud of that group."
McNealy thinks Stanford just may surprise the people who thought losing Rodgers and Wilson would lower expectations.
"We're just going to have to be a gritty team," he said. "We've seen rain, wind, cold and heat and play one of the strongest schedules in the country. We'll go up against the best competition and that should prepare us to play at a national championship caliber."
Stanford was the team leader after three rounds of stroke play in last year's NCAA championship and finished third in match play.
McNealy, Boote and Badhwar were among Stanford's top five players. Grimes finished ahead of Wilson at the 2012 national tournament.
Even tougher just may be the Pac-12 Championships, which the Cardinal won last year for the first time in 30 years. This year's conference title will be determined in Pullman (Wash.) and Ray said the Pac-12 "has never been stronger."
McNealy said he felt a little different coming into the season because of the loss of Rodgers and Wilson, but feels even more confident.
"I feel like I have the chance to win every tournament I play," he said. "I discovered the top end of my game this summer."
The summer was not without disappointment. He missed the cut at the U.S. Amateur by one stroke and at the U.S. Open by five.
"Sometimes you need disappointment," McNealy said. "It's fun to play against the best in the country, but I stay away from result-based goals. I try to stick to my process."
Ray throws a lot at his players during the season, building a schedule that includes top competition, but also adds stress and strain to the life of a student-athlete.
"I think it pays off in the end," Ray said. "You're traveling to Florida, to Georgia, playing on Bermuda grass, playing in the rain and cold weather. Every time out is a different experience. As my old teammate, Tiger (Woods), said, 'you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.'"
McNealy seems ready for whatever comes his way.