'So many difficult blows'
Cantlay’s back after a lengthy injury and the death of a close friend
February 09, 2017
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Editor's note: Patrick Cantlay secured his first PGA TOUR victory on the second playoff hole at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The stress fracture in his lower back derailed and stalled his PGA TOUR career for nearly four years. The tragic death of his close friend and caddie in a hit-and-run accident a year ago offered unwanted perspective and heartache.
But while those two developments combined to send Patrick Cantlay to the lowest point of his young life, he doesn’t see them tied neatly into one emotional package, ready to offer equal parts inspiration and determination as he begins his comeback this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
That’s not how he’s planning to cope. In order to play his best golf this week, Cantlay must focus only on the tasks at hand, the process of managing his way around 18 holes. “I’m just trying to make it all about the golf,” he said on the eve of his first round. “Trying to forget everything else.”
It won’t be easy.
The image of seeing Chris Roth struck by a car while crossing a street in the early-morning hours in Newport Beach, California, last February will forever remain embedded in his mind. Cantlay, after all, was just a few feet away at the time as the two headed towards a local restaurant.
After calling 911, Cantlay then cradled his unconscious friend in his arms. Covered in Roth’s blood, he felt helpless while waiting for the ambulance he knew couldn’t reverse the inevitable. Roth’s death, at age 24, was pronounced a short while later at the nearby hospital.
Dealing with death of any kind is challenging. But dealing with it for the first time – under those circumstances and at that age – can test a person’s fortitude. While the flashbacks of that night have lessened with each passing month, they will never completely go away. Nor should they, insists Cantlay.
“Just a freak, one-in-a-million type deal,” Cantlay said. “Extremely unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. … I’ve done my best to deal with it, but I still accept that it’s going to bother me now and it’s going to bother me for the rest of my life.”
Just two weeks before the accident, Cantlay had received a different kind of punch to the gut.
He had been preparing to play the 2016 CareerBuilder Challenge when his back flared up. It would’ve been his first start on TOUR in more than a year. Instead, he pulled out of the event and met with his medical team. The news was not good – he could not play golf for another nine months.
Cantlay was devastated. His promising career had already been in neutral for far too long, ever since May 24, 2013 when he was on the range hitting irons prior to his second round at Colonial. He experienced a pain in his back that day and had to withdraw.
At the time, Cantlay – then a full-time member on the Web.com Tour -- figured he would bounce back quickly. A couple of days off and he’d return the next week. But the pain never disappeared. Initial examinations could not pinpoint the problem. It took two months before Dr. Robert Watkins – whose Marina Spine Center in Marina Del Rey counts many professional athletes as patients – finally confirmed the stress fracture. He also, more or less, confirmed the length of recovery. Six weeks to a year.
For Cantlay, it was essentially the latter. He did make three Web.com Tour starts that fall in order to ensure his status for promotion to the PGA TOUR, and somehow gutted out a second-place finish at the Hotel Fitness Championship – an ironic tournament name for someone in such discomfort. He returned to TOUR competition a year later in Dallas and played five events during the summer of 2014. None were pain-free.
“That’s kind of the nature of stress fractures,” Cantlay said. “It’s tough not being able to go do what I love to do. That’s the hardest part. I don’t know if I ever really coped with it. I coped with it because I had to. But it never felt OK or right to me.”
Cantlay started one more event in 2014, the OHL Classic in Mayakoba in mid-November. He made the cut after a second-round 68 but struggled on the weekend and finished 76th, last on the leaderboard. He was ranked 623rd in the world after that week.
Due to his inactivity since then, he’s unranked entering Pebble Beach. Given that Cantlay once spent a record 55 weeks as the world’s top-ranked amateur during his celebrated college days at UCLA, that free-fall off the pro charts might have prompted a career change by less-determined players. Though discouraged, Cantlay never reached a breaking point.
“It’s natural to feel a little like that when you’ve taken so many difficult blows,” he said. “But I knew that my main goal was still to play golf at the highest level and I was going to do everything I could to get myself back to a spot where I was doing that.”
The unpredictable and lengthy recovery from his stress fracture prompted some drastic action. Cantlay went to Europe to receive the same kind of Regenokine blood-spinning treatment that other athletes – including a handful of pro golfers – praise as a way to overcome chronic pain. “I figured it couldn’t hurt,” Cantlay said.
Whether it helped, no one knows. All Cantlay knows now is that he’s been relatively pain-free for an extended period, and that he’s swinging the club well. He’s also ready to share his story, even though it’s not easy to discuss. “It’s difficult every time,” he said, adding, “it’s part of dealing with it.”
One thing he doesn’t want to do is exploit the memory of his deceased friend by using it as a motivating factor this week.
Golf teammates at Servite High in Anaheim, California, the two had talked about a pro partnership, and Roth was on the bag the last time Cantlay played on TOUR. Their high school golf coach, Dane Jako, told the Orange County Register that “it would have been one of the Bones-Phil Mickelson relationships, I am sure.”
Instead, Cantlay’s caddie this week is veteran Matt Minister, who has worked with players such as Nick Price and, most recently, Chris Kirk. Asked if Roth would have been his caddie had he lived, Cantlay replied, “Potentially. Who knows, he may have evolved past me. A lot can happen in a year.”
Dwelling on the events of the last year will do no good inside the ropes – and syncing the two major storylines during that time is not fair.
“The golf part and the Chris part seem like two completely separate deals,” Cantlay said. “The golf part is very upsetting and an issue for me. It’s been a struggle just to get back and play golf pain-free. I’ve done a lot of work to get to this point to be able to play this week.
“But the Chris thing is totally separate. That would be difficult whether I was playing or not playing, and it would be just as difficult both ways and just as life-changing and just as earth-shattering. Just something like that changes your life and puts you on a different trajectory than you ever thought you’d get on. And it definitely changes your perspective on things.”
That’s not to say Cantlay – who is making the first of his 10 starts on a major medical exemption -- won’t be thinking of Roth this week. After all, they bonded over golf. Roth knew how frustrating the injury problems were for Cantlay, and how important it was for his friend to continue chasing those big dreams. Just being back inside the ropes is the best way for Cantlay to honor his friend’s memory.
Asked if he would feel Roth’s presence this week, Cantlay replied, “I don’t really want to turn it into that. It’s not about that. But I know he’d be happy seeing me play again.”
So will everybody else who has ever lost a close friend or been robbed of their dreams. Patrick Cantlay’s comeback begins at Pebble. Feel free to wish him well.