Back in 2012, Stanford coach Conrad Ray took a chance and signed a skinny hockey player from Portola Valley, Calif., named Maverick McNealy. It paid off in the form of 11 individual victories, three first-team All-America selections and a Haskins Award.
Five years later, McNealy has graduated and turned pro, but another former two-sport high school athlete is excelling for the Cardinal. Junior Brandon Wu started the fall with a pair of top-6 finishes in elite events, tying for sixth at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational and sharing runner-up honors at the Nike Golf Collegiate.
“It’s not a surprise to me,” Ray said. “We all know Brandon’s extremely athletic … and I think he’s finally getting his mojo in the college golf ranks.”
When Ray first saw Wu on a golf course, he immediately noticed Wu’s power and athleticism. Wu was a standout golfer at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and a varsity swimmer, competing in the 50 freestyle and 100 backstroke for the private school. (He played recreational hockey, too.) When most of his golf contemporaries teed it up during winter months in warmer climates, Wu was indoors wearing a swim cap and goggles, swimming lap after lap.
Some college coaches passed on Wu because he was a raw talent who played golf only half the year. Ray, on the other hand, saw a lot of potential.
“I felt like we kind of won the lottery there a little bit when he decided on Stanford,” Ray said. “I definitely felt like he was under-recruited relative to his physical ability and what I was seeing.”
Wu’s reputation always had been that of a sound ballstriker who plays a cut. But he has worked hard on bettering his putting, and this summer bolstered his confidence by nearly qualifying for a major championship (U.S. Open) and winning his first national amateur tournament (Porter Cup).
Wu was a first alternate for this year’s U.S. Open and made the trip to Erin Hills, taking advantage of the USGA’s new rule that allowed first alternates to play practice rounds. Wu, who started at 10th on the alternate list, ended up third and missed out on playing in his first major.
But he gained valuable experience by playing practice rounds in front of big crowds, and a month later he won the Porter Cup in front of a gallery Wu estimated to be in the “couple hundreds.”
“I was able to stay pretty calm and collected from that by drawing from that U.S. Open experience,” Wu said.
Wu nearly won his first college title this fall at Pumpkin Ridge, giving himself an 18-foot eagle putt to tie Oregon’s Norman Xiong and force a playoff. Wu missed the putt and settled for birdie, but showed his coach a lot that day.
“I could tell he wasn’t nervous,” Ray said. “You can’t recruit or coach that.”
Ray said he’ll often find Wu alone on the putting green after practice, late into the afternoon and long after others have left.
“The solitude of the game is something that I think he really likes and relishes,” Ray said.
Kind of like the long swim practices, swimming back and forth, staring at a thin line on the bottom of the pool.
“Swimming, like golf, it’s a very mental sport and it’s quite individualized, as well,” Wu said. “… You really have to push yourself and motivate yourself, and set goals and try to reach them.”
On your mark.
(Note: This story appears in the October 9, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)