Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2019

Cantlay Smiles, And Wins

It has been seven years since Patrick Cantlay, then just 20 years old, gave up his amateur standing to join the ranks of professional golfers. When he did so, a little more than two months after finishing as the low amateur at the 2012 Masters, expectations for Cantlay’s success on the PGA Tour were huge. Those hopes were not based solely on his performance at Augusta National, but on the totality of his amateur career, in which Cantlay first gained notice when he won the California State High School Championship as a senior at Servite High, a Catholic prep school in Anaheim.

Cantlay moved from the cloistered halls of Servite, with a total enrollment of less than 1,000 students, to the considerably more cosmopolitan campus of UCLA, where he was but one of more than 45,000 enrollees. But he quickly proved that his high school success was about much more than being the proverbial big fish in a tiny pond. In his first year as a member of the Bruins golf team, Cantlay won four tournaments and was honored with the Haskins Award, given annually to the outstanding male collegiate golfer in the United States. Winners of the Haskins, which was first presented in 1971, include Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar and, one year after Cantlay, Justin Thomas. In all Haskins’ honorees have won more than 250 PGA Tour titles.

Still a teenager, Cantlay qualified for the 2011 U.S. Open through sectional qualifying, where he won low amateur honors at Congressional while Rory McIlroy was running away from the field for the main trophy. One week later he competed at the Tour stop in greater Hartford, where a course record 60 at TPC River Highlands set the mark for lowest score ever posted by an amateur at a PGA Tour event. That same summer he finished as the low amateur at two other Tour tournaments.

Throughout that remarkable run Cantlay was ranked as the top male amateur in the world. The World Amateur Golf Ranking was introduced by the R&A in 2007 and is based on results from more than 2,600 amateur events all around the globe. In the dozen years plus that the ranking has been in existence, only Spain’s Jon Rahm has spent more time at number one – 60 weeks – than Cantlay’s total of 55, and no player has matched his 54 consecutive weeks at the top of the amateur list.

So expectations were high indeed when Cantlay turned pro, with more than a few pundits anointing him the latest in a steady stream of young golfers sure to be the “next Tiger.” But like others burdened with that unwelcome weight over the last two decades, Cantlay quickly found that success on the weekly grind of the PGA Tour does not come easily.

In his first Tour event he returned to Connecticut for the Travelers Championship, where just the previous summer he had torched the layout with his record-setting 60. This time he missed the cut. While the results every week were not that inauspicious, Cantlay struggled in search of a top-10 or even a top-25 finish.

By the following season he was relegated to the developmental Tour. He finally earned his first professional victory many miles from home, at that Tour’s Colombia Open, an event staged in Bogotá with the goal of increasing interest in golf in Latin America. Still Cantlay did well enough in events to regain his Tour card, but then his career was waylaid by health and personal issues.

A back injury kept him out of all but a handful of tournaments for the better part of three seasons, and during that absence Cantlay’s good friend and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while the two were together in southern California.

It wasn’t until the start of the 2016-17 season that Cantlay returned to the PGA Tour full time in both decent health and a positive state of mind. Using his medical exemption and invitations from tournament sponsors, he managed high enough finishes at several events to regain his Tour card. Some top-10 finishes finally started to come his way, and in November 2017 Cantlay bested two other golfers in a playoff to claim his first PGA Tour title, the Shriners Hospital for Children Open.

Yet until this week that victory remained the sole one on his PGA Tour resume. Known for his intensity on the course, Cantlay often seemed to get in his own way, particularly late in tournaments. The legendary Jack Nicklaus noticed and reached out to Cantlay, encouraging him to have more fun on the golf course and to let a tournament unfold instead of trying to force the outcome.

Given that relationship, it’s only appropriate that Cantlay’s second trip to the PGA Tour’s winner’s circle came this weekend, at Nicklaus’s own Memorial Tournament. At Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Cantlay began the final round four shots adrift of 54-hole leader Martin Kaymer and two behind runner-up Adam Scott. But while Scott turned in a respectable 4-under par 68 on Sunday, Kaymer was hampered by a blister on his right hand during the second half of the round and struggled to shoot even par. That opened the door for Cantlay, who recorded eight birdies on an otherwise clean scorecard for a 64 that was easily the best round of the day. The result was a two-shot victory over Scott, a win that gives Cantlay a two-year Tour exemption and moves him up to sixth place in both the FedEx Cup standings and the race for the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Cantlay is still just 27, and while he won’t come close to matching the golfing resume of Woods, he has plenty of time to build an impressive one of this own. Just two weeks ago he finished in a tie for third at the PGA Championship, his best showing in a major, and now he’s taken home a title on a difficult golf course against a very strong field. On Sunday, after taking the lead on the back nine, he even managed to smile. As Nicklaus, who certainly knows, had counseled him, in a game that is every bit as much about one’s mental state as one’s swing, sometimes that can make all the difference.

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