The education of Patrick Cantlay
12 Min Read
Rising star has dealt with major obstacles on and off the course but remains focused
Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR
Patrick Cantlay: Overcoming early setbacks to career
Editor's Note: This article was orginally published on June 19, 2018. Since then Patrick Cantlay has become a PGA TOUR star with a FedExCup title to go along with six career TOUR titles.
When he tees it up at this week’s Travelers Championship, Patrick Cantlay will be celebrating an anniversary, of sorts. He shot a second-round 60 at the 2011 Travelers Championship, the first 60 or better by an amateur in PGA TOUR history, and while he faded to a T24 finish, he had announced his arrival.
He turned pro in 2012, and nearly saw his career end in 2013.
For three-plus years, Cantlay coped with career-threatening back problems and the heartbreaking loss of his best friend, dropping off the radar completely. But to watch him today, you would never know it; he never lost a step. How is that possible?
Cantlay talks a lot about process, and while you could interpret that to mean his strict regimen of back exercises, and taking one hole at a time, it’s more illuminating to go back further into his formative years, when he learned the game on an almost cellular level. He has all the shots, yes, but according to those who know him best, it’s what’s between those ears that makes Cantlay stand out most of all.
“Poise is the combination of how to get yourself relaxed, seeing the big picture and what makes things happen, and being practical,” says Jamie Mulligan, Cantlay’s coach at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, California. “A lot of people get one of those. He got all three.”
Says UCLA coach Derek Freeman, for whom Cantlay played for two years, “As I watched him from junior golf, maturing into the world’s best amateur, I watched a kid that understood the game at a higher level. He knew what architects were doing, what they were trying to draw your eye toward. I’m not sure I’ve ever had another young player understand the things that he did.”
‘Soaking it all in’
At first glance, little about Cantlay stands out. He is listed at 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and 160 pounds; is 26; is an introvert; and has good genes. Pat Neylan, Patrick’s grandfather, brought his grandson Patrick to the course when he was still a toddler. Steve Cantlay, Patrick’s father, is a former club champion at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach.
As it happened, Virginia C.C. was then a breeding ground for touring professionals. Paul Goydos. Peter Tomasulo. John Cook. John Mallinger. John Merrick. Cantlay watched them intently when he wasn’t working on his swing with the club’s pro, Jamie Mulligan, or playing the course each Saturday with the other pro, Mike Miles.
“I was starting my PGA TOUR Champions career,” Cook says, “and Patrick was this kid who you could tell was not just a kid who played golf. He was something a little bit different. We liked being around him; he would come down and watch us practice and listen to how we talked to each other. You could tell he was soaking it all in.”
Miles, who is now the Director of Golf at Oak Bridge Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, says Cantlay was an exceptionally observant learner.
“Patrick basically distilled all the information,” says Miles, who played the TOUR in the 80s. “He knew who had the best short game, so he would sit and watch John Mallinger. He asked me, ‘Who’s got the best iron shots?’ I said, ‘Watch John Cook, because he was taught by Ken Venturi.’”
Cantlay does not disagree.
“There was some of that,” he says. “It was good to see how they prepared and practiced, and what TOUR golf was like at a young age. They were all really great to me. They would always take me out to play, or if I asked any questions they’d be really helpful.”
By the time he was 12, Cantlay started taking on Miles, himself a former prodigy. Miles would play the kid using only a 3-wood, and it was only a matter of time before the student surpassed the teacher.
Soon, Cantlay had a decision to make between Mater Dei and Servite, two local Catholic high schools with exceptional sports programs.
“I was interviewed by him to be his high school golf coach,” Servite’s Dane Jako says with a laugh. “I’d been teaching a P.E. class, and told him to meet me on the football field, and he and his parents, Steve and Colleen, got there early and sat in the bleachers.
“This is my 23rd year, so I’d been in it for a few years,” Jako continues. “I’d had some success. We had won league titles and all that. I knew of him, but I also knew how the system worked. He did 90 percent of the talking, and I kept interrupting him. He wanted to know about the golf, the courses, what tournaments we were planning on playing.”
Most importantly, Cantlay wanted to know what it would take to make varsity. Jako replied that he would first want to focus on making the freshman team, and then the junior varsity, and if his scores were good enough, he’d get a varsity tryout.
“You could tell he didn’t like that answer,” Jako says, “so I explained to him, that’s just the process, you’ll be fine. I didn’t find out until later, he got in the car with his parents afterward and said, ‘Well, I’m never playing for that guy.’”
Cantlay did in fact choose Servite; Jako now says he simply got lucky. As he remembers it, Cantlay shot 1- or 2-under on the first day of freshman tryouts. Then he shot 1- or 2-under the second day. Jako brought the kid up to varsity.
Their first varsity match, a nine-hole competition at Western Hills Country Club, a formidable course that has hosted U.S. Open qualifiers, arrived on a cold, drizzly day in February.
“He broke the course record, shot 31 on the front nine,” says Jako, who still has the ball Cantlay used that day. “He beat a senior from Long Beach Wilson, a good school that Paul Goydos had gone to. The kid was committed to go to Loyola-Marymount.
“After that day,” Jako continues, “everything changed. Patrick led the team in stats as a freshman. It was funny how the season evolved. All the seniors, in the beginning, were like, ‘Who’s this freshman? Coach, you’re changing the rules.’ I think I dropped one of the tryouts for him. Nobody wanted to pair up with him. By the end, he was their little brother.”
Cantlay took a leadership role, to say the least. Rarely did a day go by when he wouldn’t knock on the coach’s door to delve into a conversation about, say, the value in playing harder courses.
“It was relentless,” Jako says. “He’s just a very driven, very loyal guy. Pat, in a matter of speaking, taught me how to be a golf coach. I was lucky that he trusted me. I consider his swing coach, Jamie Mulligan, a friend. Years later, Patrick asked me to caddie for him at a lot of events. It’s weird, considering where we started, but I consider him one of my closest friends.”
Boy becomes a man
Cantlay was getting close to the end of high school when he hit a growth spurt.
“He went from just popping it down the fairway to, whoa, this kid has added 30 or 40 yards in three or four months,” Cook says.
Cantlay was still inquisitive, still a sponge for information about the game. He reminded Cook of himself at that age. Later, after moving to Orlando and taking a membership at Isleworth, Cook would come to know another young player like that: Tiger Woods.
In 2010, Cantlay won the California State High School Championship and lost to Peter Uihlein in the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur, narrowly missing out on a Masters berth. Although his parents had gone to USC, Cantlay decamped for UCLA, where he won the Fred Haskins and Jack Nicklaus awards as the nation’s top collegiate.
And he was just getting started. His 60 at the 2011 Travelers promised an incandescent future, for Cantlay at his best appeared to have a limitless upside.
Ask Miles about the contemporaries with whom he grew up—Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, Jay Delsing and Steve Pate—and he’ll tell you Cantlay is better than any of them.
He’s not the only one with such a lofty opinion.
“Patrick hit smart shots at the right time,” UCLA’s Freeman says. “More than anything, he knew what made him successful and that’s what he focused on. He wouldn’t worry about anybody else.”
Freeman stops, then reconsiders.
“He asked me one time who was the best player I ever coached,” he says. “I’m trying to push him, so I say, ‘Kevin Chappell is better. Anthony Kim is better.’ He wants to know who is the best ball-striker, the best putter. He never liked it when I said someone was better, but as I look back now, it’s tough to say who’s the best player. Is it based on what they’ve done after school? What they’ve done in school? If he would have stayed four years like Chappell, there’s no telling how many records he could have set, how many times he could have won.”
Injury and heartache
Cantlay turned pro after his sophomore year in June, 2012. He would play his way up through the Web.com Tour, and take the odd sponsor’s exemption into tournaments on the big TOUR. He was leading the 2013 Web.com money list when he arrived for the Fort Worth Invitational where, he said later, it felt like someone had plunged a knife into his back as he warmed up before the second round.
He withdrew, but his problems were just beginning.
A short layoff became a seven-month break, and still his back wasn’t right. Cantlay struggled in 2014, making six mostly unproductive starts on TOUR; sat out 2015 entirely; and still wasn’t feeling well at the dawn of 2016. After developing a golfing mind like few others, he was now betrayed by his body.
“It was just a weird deal,” says Preston Valder, one of Cantlay’s high school and college teammates and still a friend. “He was constantly proactive in everything he did to try and get better, but in the end, it was just basically: take time off. That’s a weird thing to have to do when you’re trying to get better. When we were having lunch, or seeing someone during that time, his back was all anyone ever wanted to talk about. I just wouldn’t even touch it.”
Then came the tragedy. Cantlay and his best friend, Chris Roth, had figured everything out since their days at Servite: Cantlay would play the PGA TOUR, and Roth would be his caddie. That all changed in an instant in the middle of the night in Newport Beach, when Roth was struck by a car while crossing the street on the way to a restaurant. He died in Cantlay’s arms at just 24, the victim of a hit-and-run driver who would wind up behind bars.
“Just a freak, one-in-a-million type deal,” Cantlay later called it. He called 911 and was covered in blood when the ambulance arrived; Roth was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Cantlay spent the rest of 2016 rebuilding emotionally as well as physically. There were times, he said, when nothing seemed to matter. But when he returned in 2017, it was as if he’d never left golf’s ruling class. There was something deep inside him that had emerged unscathed. In limited action, so as to protect his L5 vertebrae, he fulfilled his Major Medical Extension in just his second start, an eye-opening runner-up at the Valspar Championship.
More incredibly still, Cantlay made 13 cuts in 13 starts, and despite his limited schedule got all the way to the TOUR Championship. Last fall he nabbed his first victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas, where Woods had broken through 21 years earlier.
Back among the elite
Cantlay led going into the back nine of the recent Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, but faltered coming home to finish solo fourth. He is back to playing a full schedule this year, and while he keeps a small apartment in California, he has recently taken a condo rental in North Palm Beach, Florida. During off-weeks you can find him not at Long Beach but at The Bear’s Club, butting heads with fellow 20-somethings like Justin Thomas.
Pat Cantlay, Patrick’s grandfather, doesn’t play much anymore, but he still mows that backyard putting green every day. Patrick’s dad, Steve, is no longer in his golfing prime. Patrick, having learned his lessons from them and others, spends his idle hours picking through non-fiction tomes like “A Brief History of Time” (Stephen Hawking), “The Selfish Gene” (Richard Dawkins) and a comprehensive biography of General George Patton. His book of the moment is “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (Jared Diamond).
“I like reading about certain people,” Cantlay says, “and seeing if I can pick up anything that other successful people have done.” He’s not an e-book guy, incidentally; he likes the feel of the pages on his fingers. And he is careful not to treat any one account as gospel.
“Like with history,” he says, “you’re not going to get an honest or a straight look from any one person. You’ve got to blend everybody’s take, and that’s the closest you’re going to get.”
As ever, that philosophy extends to the golf course. “If he’s playing with Phil,” his pal Valder says, “and Phil’s good with wedges, Patrick is trying to learn how he does it.”
Goydos now sees in Cantlay a player who fell on tough times but whose extraordinary golfing acumen saw him through to the other side.
“You shoot 60 as an amateur, there are expectations that can be difficult,” Goydos says. “Then you get hurt and don’t compete for three and a half years, well, that doesn’t make it any easier. Then you come out and play 13 tournaments and make the TOUR Championship? That’s ridiculous. How many guys could do that? Tiger could do it, Jack could do it, Hogan could do it. It’s a pretty small club.”
Adds Miles of his former pupil, “If he didn’t win two or more majors, I would be awfully surprised.”
The golf world awaits.
Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and golf.com joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.