By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
CROMWELL, Conn. -- A year ago, Patrick Cantlay shot a course-record 60 at TPC River Highlands. It was the lowest score ever recorded on the PGA TOUR by an amateur.
It was also a sign.
“I realized for the first time that if I played really well, I could compete on any stage,” said Cantlay, who is foregoing his final two years at UCLA and turning pro at this week’s Travelers Championship.
The decision was a no-brainer for the 20-year-old, who was the top-ranked amateur player in the world following two years at UCLA that included numerous honors, including the Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan Awards as the nation’s top collegiate golfer.
Even as an amateur, his record was pretty impressive on the professional level.
In eight starts on TOUR, Cantlay recorded four top-25 finishes, including a tie for ninth at last year’s RBC Canadian Open. He was also the low amateur in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, where he tied for 21st. A week later he briefly held the lead midway through the Travelers Championship before finishing in a tie for 24th.
He was also the low amateur in this year’s Masters, tying for 47th.
Hello, world, indeed for Cantlay, who signed with the same agent as Tiger Woods, Mark Steinberg of Excel Sports Management.
“Patrick is an outstanding individual, as well as an exceptional talent who already has proven success at the professional level,” Steinberg said. “We are excited to work with him in this new chapter of his golf career.”
That career began in earnest in Southern California, where Cantlay spent his formative years hanging around John Cook, John Mallinger, Peter Tomasulo and John Merrick, among others, at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach.
In high school, Cantlay won the state championship as a senior before winning four tournaments as a freshman at UCLA on his way to earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors and the Haskins Award as the nation’s most outstanding college golfer in 2011.
“I think it helped me a lot; more than I know probably,” Cantlay said of his time at Virginia Country Club. “Growing up in that culture and practicing and playing with TOUR pros, you pick up things -- how they practice, how they look at a golf course. Before I got to a TOUR event I knew how a TOUR pro played. So I wasn't in shock by how they talked or how they acted.”
Cantlay, too, looks the part.
In his limited action on TOUR last year, Cantlay’s scoring average was an impressive 69.26, which would have ranked third on TOUR. He averaged better than 290 yards off the tee and would have ranked in the top 35 in greens in regulation.
”[The decision] was a combination of being comfortable with being a professional and taking it to the next level,” said Cantlay, who added the impending q-school and schedule changes had little to do with his decision.
Cantlay will play the next three weeks, including this one, on sponsor exemptions, and he has up to seven to try to earn a TOUR card. There are a few different ways Cantlay could do that.
If Cantlay earns $411,943 -- the same as No. 150 from last year’s money list -- he would be eligible for special temporary membership and unlimited sponsor exemptions the remainder of this year.
He could also go the route of Bud Cauley, who earned enough in his limited starts last year to finish in the top 125 on the money list. Should Cantlay’s earnings rank between No. 126 and 150 on the money list, he would be exempt into the final stage of q-school, where he could also earn a card in what will be the final year of the current format.
Since 1980, the only players to go from college directly to the TOUR without a stop at q-school were Gary Hallberg, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods, Ryan Moore and Cauley.
Or he could just win, which would guarantee him a TOUR card for two years and certainly isn’t unrealistic given Cantlay’s pedigree.
“I think I owe a lot to those guys [at Virginia Country Club] for bringing me up in that culture,” Cantlay said.
Now he can pay them back, too.