Jeff McNeil grew up with PGA Tour dreams but ended up an MLB All-Star
It’s a few hours before first pitch at Citi Field, and Jeff McNeil is looking comfortable. The New York Mets are in desperate pursuit of a playoff spot, but McNeil — wearing flip-flops, knee-high socks, gym shorts and a windbreaker — is sitting just outside the Mets clubhouse in a leather chair. MLB home run leader Pete Alonso speed walks by in full uniform, running late for a photoshoot, and glances over at McNeil sprawled out with a look of envy.
Seeing McNeil in this environment, it’s hard to imagine the 2019 All-Star ever could have ended up anywhere else. It’s especially hard to imagine that he always envisioned baseball as a backup plan. But it was just 10 years ago that McNeil was getting ready to compete at the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship alongside the best young golfers in the world.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Cali., McNeil’s father, Steve, made sure Jeff had a golf club in one hand and a bat in the other by 3 years old. Tiger Woods was beginning to make a name for himself and served as an inspiration for McNeil, who proved to be a natural-born athlete. Southern California is traditionally known for stiff athletic competition, and McNeil excelled in both golf and baseball. On the course, he squared off against Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau, prodigies in his age group, at local junior events. On the diamond, he earned a reputation as a base hit machine from an early age.
There was one problem for McNeil; golf and baseball were played in the same season at his high school. The baseball squad was terrible, and the golf team was stacked. He wanted to win and compete with the best. With five guys averaging in the low-to-mid 70s, the golf team afforded McNeil that opportunity; his decision was easy. The core group on his high school golf team drove him to get better every day, and his hard work paid off in 2009 when he qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur at Trump National Golf Club.
It was a star-studded field at the Junior Am. McNeil was paired with Patrick Rodgers and was competing against the likes of Jordan Spieth and Emiliano Grillo on the junior game’s largest stage. McNeil recalls watching Spieth, the eventual champion, warm up. “So that’s what it’s supposed to look like,” he thought. For two days, McNeil was given a front-row seat to watch future Tour players in action as he failed to make the cut. Despite a disappointing showing, McNeil thought qualifying for the event would lead to scholarship offers after solidifying himself as one of the top golfers among his peers.
But those offers never came. While McNeil’s game had progressed to a high-D1 level, he peaked too late; colleges had already filled scholarships for his class. Walk-on possibilities were out there, but McNeil wasn’t interested in waiting around for potential offers to trickle in. It was time to fall back on Plan B.
McNeil had never fully given up baseball for golf. He’d continued to play each summer on a travel team and it was a “toss-up” as to which sport he was hitting the ball better at when he was 17. Three weeks after leaving Trump National, unsure of what his future held, he landed a baseball scholarship to Long Beach State even though he’d never played a single game in high school. Three weeks was all it took for a PGA Tour dream to die.
On the baseball field, McNeil proved he could not only compete with the best but the best of the best. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Mets after his junior year. Three years was all it took for McNeil to realize that his backup plan was meant to be.
McNeil hasn’t hung up his sticks since making the transition to baseball full time. He squeezes in a round every chance he gets on a day off. McNeil plays to a scratch and averages 300+ yards off the tee. According to SNY broadcaster Gary Apple, he witnessed McNeil blast a drive in the same ballpark as Dustin Johnson, who played through the two at the Bears Club during Spring Training.
When it comes to McNeil’s approach playing golf vs. baseball, they couldn’t be more different. “I try to hit bombs off the tee,” said McNeil. “There isn’t much I won’t go for.” While McNeil is an aggressive hitter at the plate, he prefers to pick up a base hit rather than swing for the fences. “I just try to find a hole when I’m up at-bat.”
Growing up, McNeil admired how mentally tough his golf hero was. “Tiger had this crazy focus on the course,” said McNeil. “He went into every week with the mentality that he wasn’t going to let anyone beat him. That always stood out to me.” McNeil takes that same approach with him to the batter’s box. He doesn’t let any at-bat go to waste and takes on pitchers with the confidence of a future batting champion.
One of the biggest perks of playing baseball in New York is getting to play New York golf courses. At Winged Foot, he channeled another lefty, Phil Mickelson, and hit an errant tee shot off to the left on 18 reminiscent to Phil at the 2006 U.S. Open. Unlike Phil, he was able to find the green in two thanks to a nifty shot around the trees to save par. Shortly after Bethpage Black opened for play following the PGA Championship, McNeil posted a 74.
McNeil still has serious game and he still loves to compete on the course. Earlier this summer, McNeil teamed up with Brian Walker, one of his high school teammates, to win The Barstool Classic’s New York qualifier at Pound Ridge. Should the Mets season end by mid-October (which he vehemently hopes it doesn’t), McNeil has every intention of competing in the championship event at Liberty National. One way or another, he’ll be in the hunt for a title.
Oh, and speaking of Liberty National? McNeil popped over to take in a practice round ahead of the Northern Trust in August. Once again, he had the chance to watch Spieth warmup on the range. But time has given him an even greater admiration then he had in ’09. If a scholarship offer had come in, who knows if McNeil would’ve been back to warming up next to Spieth on Tour. “I’d be lying if I didn’t have ‘that could’ve been me’ thoughts while watching those guys,” said McNeil. “I’m right where I belong, though.”
McNeil is quick to point out that he’s not the baseball player he is today without his background in golf. “My golf swing has helped my baseball swing,” said McNeil. “It taught me how to use my body properly, generate power from the ground up and create lag with my bat the same way I do with my clubs.”
The two swings are interchangeable for McNeil, which might explain why he feels so comfortable with an unusual bat in his hands. McNeil hits with a knob-less bat, which means he goes up to the plate with something that resembles a golf shaft. Go figure.
So, what’s harder to hit: a baseball or a golf ball? “The eye-hand coordination that goes into hitting a fastball makes hitting an idle golf ball feel easy,” said McNeil. Still, he’d feel more comfortable hitting with the World Series on the line than having a downhill putt to win the Masters. “I’d be petrified of that putt.”
If McNeil could do it all over again, there’s only one change he would make: He’d become a pitcher. “Those guys play once every five days and can play golf the other four,” said McNeil. “Now that’s the dream gig!” Asked if he could see himself making a run at the Champions Tour once his baseball playing days are over, he responds without hesitation. “Absolutely.”
Maybe the original plan isn’t dead just yet after all.