Former amateur World No.1 Patrick Cantlay’s young career has already been through ups and downs.
Patrick Cantlay Exclusive: "It Was So Much Bigger Than Golf"
Former Ryder Cup (opens in new tab) captain Paul Azinger began 2020 with a bold prediction. Standing behind the first tee at Kapalua’s Plantation course, the analyst declared that 2020 would be the year of Patrick Cantlay. “By the end of the year, Patrick Cantlay will be World No.1,” Azinger said. “That’s a statement, right?!”
In the past three years, former amateur World No.1 Cantlay has started to blossom with two wins on the PGA Tour. Last year, he finished in the top ten at The Masters and the USPGA at Bethpage. Physically, he’s a prodigiously talented golfer.
But Azinger feels it is Cantlay’s demeanour that stands out. “He hits it great, but he has that stoic personality,” Azinger said. “I told [Cantlay] he’s my favourite player to watch. I loved watching [Retief] Goosen because he was so mellow; non-reactive. What everyone else sees as kind of incredibly boring, I see as ‘I wouldn’t want him breathing down my neck’.”
But by the end of the first round at the Tournament of Champions on Maui in January, Cantlay seemed anything but boring. The 28-year-old was caught in a spectacular hot-microphone fail on host broadcaster Golf Channel.
It’s unclear exactly what Cantlay was talking about, given Golf Channel was coming out of an ad break. But he was telling a story to playing partner Jon Rahm and his caddie Adam Hayes on the 17th tee at Kapalua.
It may have related to slow play, or the wildly erratic weather conditions that made the Plantation course play difficult that day: “I’ve been waiting for this weather for 40 years. These pampered f---s need to play,” Cantlay was heard saying.
Cantlay then said to his caddie, Matt Minister, “Two more holes and we can get a Mai Tai”. “I’ll get my Mai Tai; you can get your water,” Minister replied. “Don’t spoil it for me,” Cantlay responded. When the telecast cut back to the booth, Azinger said, “Gosh, he’s not really staying in the moment. He’s already in the 19th hole!”
The Hawaiian mic blunder made headlines in the golf world as Cantlay showed a rare flash of colour. Cantlay is usually a mellow, even-keeled player, as the golf world saw vividly at last year’s Memorial Tournament in Ohio – an event hosted by Jack Nicklaus.
Cantlay started the final round four strokes behind the lead, but fired an eight-under-par 64 to steal victory from Australia’s Adam Scott, recording the lowest ever final round by a winner in the tournament’s 43-year history. It eclipsed the 65 Tiger Woods closed with when he triumphed in 2009. Reporters half joked with Cantlay that he didn’t flash a smile the entire day. “He did at No.15,” Nicklaus joked.
The win was particularly impressive given Scott’s usually world-class ball-striking was on full display and was only going to be foiled by a career round from an opponent.
Cantlay showed no fear of going deep as he rattled off five front nine birdies, before adding two more on the back nine. He also didn’t let the occasion overwhelm him despite an 18-time Major winner standing beside the 18th green for the customary handshake.
Azinger admitted Cantlay’s demeanour was similar to former World No.1 and 2001 Open Championship winner, David Duval. Duval was known for putting on his trademark sunglasses and never speaking a word to opponents in the heat of battle.
“A little bit; Duval didn’t say squat,” Azinger said of the comparison. “[Duval] just hid behind those glasses. I thought those glasses were a bad idea for him, but I didn’t realise it branded him. It made him into ‘David Duval’. I always felt it was important to see a player’s eyes, and it was important for the viewer to see a player’s eyes. And Duval just blew that straight out of the water.”
Cantlay admits his resting face can appear disappointed, but he isn’t about to change anything for the cameras. “I understand that’s my look. I try to be natural,” says Cantlay. “So I try to be how I am all the time. I was walking [during the final round at the Memorial] and somebody said, ‘It can’t be that bad, can it?’ I didn’t even realise that’s the look on my face. I was in a great mood. But I feel like if I tried to be any other way, it wouldn’t be me. I’d be trying to force it.”
Cantlay did, however, acknowledge that winning at what is known as ‘Jack’s Place’ was a highlight of his career to date. “Growing up watching golf as a kid, you definitely mark it off as something you want to check off your list throughout your career.”
A life-changing accident
Cantlay attended Servite high School in Anaheim, a ten-minute drive from the school that 15-time Major winner Woods attended (Western HS). Like Woods, Cantlay was a star amateur golfer. He still holds the record for most consecutive weeks as amateur World No.1, with 54. He recorded low-amateur honours at the US Open (2011) and Masters (2012) and won the prestigious Mark H McCormack Medal as the top-ranked amateur in the world at the end of the 2011 season.
He racked up plenty of other awards while on the golf team at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
But as a professional, the Long Beach native has taken far longer than expected to show his potential, having gone through several traumatic years early in his career. To put it in perspective, Cantlay turned professional in 2012 – only months before compatriot Jordan Spieth. But with setbacks, his career initially took the opposite path to the three-time Major Champion.
Cantlay suffered a back injury in 2013 and played just nine tournaments while trying to recover from a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae. In 2016, his best friend, high school teammate and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed in a hit-and-run accident while the two were crossing a street in Newport Beach, California. He concedes it changed him forever.
“After the difficulties with my friend Chris dying and being out so long with my back, I’m definitely a different person than I was before I went through any of those troubles,” Cantlay says. “But I don’t necessarily connect the struggles to golf. That stuff changed me as a person. It was so much bigger than golf. [Before Roth’s death] I can remember feeling happy-go-lucky; like everything is going to go good.
"Everything was just up and up and up; good things just kept happening. You keep doing good work and good things are going to happen. But during that time I realised that you can put in a lot of work, and good things still might not necessarily happen.”
Making a statement
Cantlay does not appear to be slowing down after a whirlwind 2019 season. Last year, his Memorial win was among a whopping nine top-tens from the 17 events he contested. Combined with two runner-ups and two third-place showings, he amassed $6.1m in prize money.
Cantlay has hit the ground running this year, finishing fourth at the Tournament of Champions despite the distraction of the hot-mic fail. Many found the exchange humorous and harmless, but Cantlay’s management declined all media requests on his behalf for the rest of the tournament.
But the on-air gaffe does not change the fact Cantlay appears built for pressure-cooker situations – particularly Major Championships. Three of his best results at the Majors came last year. There was a tie for ninth at Augusta, a share of third at the USPGA Championship and a tied-21st at the US Open.
Nicklaus says Cantlay’s tunnel vision is not unlike his own. “Patrick reminds me a lot of me; being serious and [getting] so wrapped up in what I’m doing that I forget about everything else that’s going on around me,” Nicklaus said last year. “And I learned years ago that when I got close to finishing a tournament, maybe two or three or four holes left, I would stop, look around me... and take a nice big breath.
“It would relax me. I’d look around and think these people are here, they’re having fun and I need to have fun as well. I need to enjoy winning this golf tournament, not torment myself when I’m trying to finish it off.”
Nicklaus passed on that advice to Cantlay days before he won last year at the Muirfield Village course he designed to look and feel just like Augusta National. “All I was trying to pass on to Patrick was to try to get a little more of a relaxed attitude in his head, so that when he got himself in that position, it wasn’t like all this pressure was on top of him,” added Nicklaus.
“And it was just a comment. It may have resonated with him; it may not have.”
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Evin was a freelance writer for Golf Monthly in 2020.
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