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NAPA — This is a column about Maverick McNealy, who, surprisingly, is not a souped-up character in the next “Cars” sequel by Disney and Pixar — you know, the showoff with painted flames who gets shown up at the end by Denty McHubcap.

McNealy is a talented young golfer, and he will make his professional debut Thursday at the Safeway Open in Napa, the tournament that officially kicks off the 2017-18 PGA season. He graduated from Stanford in June with a degree in management science and engineering, then set about reaching a difficult decision. Would he become a professional golfer, or head straight into the world of business?

McNealy chose the fairways.

Wednesday at Silverado Resort & Spa, site of the Safeway Open, I asked him about his zippy first name.

“My dad jokes that my mom had a crush on Tom Cruise, if you’ve ever seen ‘Top Gun,’” he said.

“It’s not a joke!” I heard from a couple rows behind me. It was Scott McNealy, Maverick’s father, who was sitting next to his wife, Susan.

“She does,” Maverick continued. “But my three younger brothers and I are actually all named after American cars. My dad grew up in Detroit and my grandpa worked for American Motors. It’s me, and then Dakota is a sophomore at Stanford, Colt is a freshman at Stanford and then Scout’s a junior in high school.”

A little while later I asked Scott and Susan if a fifth son would have been named Dart. Scott said they’d been on waiting on a girl they could name Mustang Sally. Touché.

“They’re all automobile (models), they all have second meanings, and they’re all country western,” Scott McNealy told me. “So Maverick is obvious. Dakota is Sioux for ‘friend.’ And Colt, we call him ‘little horse’; he’s built like a little horse. And Scout — I wouldn’t call him the most brave of the four … ”

“He definitely researches everything,” Susan offered.

Maverick’s grandfather, Raymond Williams McNealy, didn’t simply work for American Motors. He eventually rose to the position of vice chairman. When Scott was a teenager, he accompanied his father on golf outings with industry titans like Lee Iacocca.

But if the older McNealys were rooted in Detroit, the emerging generation is pure Silicon Valley. Scott co-founded Sun Microsystems, the computer and information technology giant, in 1982, and later started tech companies like Wayin and Curriki. The family lives in Portola Valley, and the boys attended or attend The Harker School, a prestigious prep school in San Jose.

Stanford is part of the nexus. Scott played golf while getting his undergraduate degree at Harvard, but he earned his MBA in Palo Alto. Susan was a Stanford undergrad, and her brother Bob played soccer there. Maverick always figured he’d attend Stanford, too. He just wasn’t sure he’d play golf.

In high school, the oldest of the McNealy boys wasn’t considered a phenom. His first love might have been hockey; he was a four-year captain of the San Jose Junior Sharks. McNealy was the 4,400th-ranked amateur when he graduated high school, he claimed in a typically thorough, 1,200-word “decision letter” that he posted to GoStanford.com on Aug. 23.

“We didn’t let our boys travel to play golf,” Scott McNealy said. “So people outside of Northern California didn’t know who he was. We just figured, you don’t fly out of Minnesota to play hockey. You don’t need to fly out of California to play golf.”

But Stanford coach Conrad Ray offered Maverick a place on the team. And the college connection has been crucial. This is a program, after all, that produced Tiger Woods and Casey Martin, Notah Begay and Michelle Wie, among others. The team was stacked when Maverick McNealy arrived.

“Tiger came to campus my sophomore year and this is right after his first back surgery, he was just back hitting balls,” McNealy recalled. “He was in the gym on the doorstep waiting for them to open it at 5:30 in the morning and was out at our facility by 8:30 ripping balls, and one of us would timidly go up to Tiger and ask him, ‘Tiger, I have a question, what do you think about when you hit the stinger?’ Eventually all 10 of us would be standing around him in a semicircle, he’d be showing us shots, answering anything, telling stories.”

It wasn’t Woods’ nuggets of advice that proved most valuable. It was the realization that what made him the best golfer in the world wasn’t some supernatural power, but rather the discipline and effort he applied to the sport.

McNealy threw himself into golf, too, and he got really good. He was the Pac-12 Player of the Year as a junior, conference scholar-athlete of the year as a senior and the world’s top-ranked amateur for portions of the two years. He’s currently at No. 2 in the world, No. 1 among American amateurs.

This is not his first PGA experience. McNealy played in eight pro tournaments as an amateur, starting with the 2014 U.S. Open and including the John Deere Classic and the Barracuda Championship this summer; he made the cut at both of those. Scott McNealy thinks his son is ready for this.

“I was more nervous in his first one when he qualified for the Pinehurst U.S. Open and I was caddying for him,” he said. “I think both of us were about ready to throw up on the first hole.”

Maverick has secured exemptions for other tournaments this season, too, including the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He also will be trying to earn his PGA card at the Web.com Tour’s Q-School this fall.

He looked ridiculously young at the podium Wednesday, but came across as assured and poised.

“We always say he’s kind of born 40,” Susan McNealy said. “Real calm, real mature, sort of an old soul. … And he really doesn’t break character.”

“What you see is what you get,” Scott added. “He’s had a third of a beer so far, on his 21st birthday, and he said, ‘Dad, you finish it.’ He’s in bed by 9 o’clock.”

Those traits must have made him an oddball in college. They should come in handy when Maverick McNealy is competing against established golf stars like Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson and Zach Johnson this weekend.

It’s been quite a ride for McNealy. He fully acknowledges the privileged life he has enjoyed.

“Since I was little, my parents have always told me ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’” McNealy wrote on GoStanford.com. “My background is not something I should run from, ignore, be embarrassed about, or fall back on. I have to work harder than everyone else to prove I earned my success — that it wasn’t given to me.”

Maybe that’s part of what drew McNealy to golf. If he had chosen Silicon Valley, his father’s connections would have opened doors whether Maverick bothered to knock on them or not. On the PGA Tour, he will be judged only for the number next to his name.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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