Cantlay fights through sore back en route to runner-up finish at Hotel Fitness

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Patrick Cantlay, fighting a back injury, doesn't know when he'll play next.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – No, the result isn’t what Patrick Cantlay wanted.

The bigger question, perhaps, is whether Sunday’s runner-up finish can afford him what he needs.

A gallant run through the Hotel Fitness Championship gave way to a pained ending for the youngest entrant in the Tour Finals. With the sore back he’d been trying to ignore speaking louder than previous days, Cantlay couldn’t hold off the challenge of former Masters champion Trevor Immelman.

It wasn’t immediately clear which hurt worse, though the former world’s top amateur certainly wasn’t interested in pinning his even-par 72 on a physical ailment.

“I’m not going to blame anything on my back because I played well all week in spite of it,” Cantlay said. “It is what it is. Putting doesn’t have anything to do with my back, and I didn’t make any putts today.”

To a certain extent, that’s true. The stress fracture in one of his lower vertebrae didn’t prevent Cantlay from starting his week with rounds of 68-65-64. And there’s no torque generated in the putting stroke.

Cantlay certainly gave himself the opportunity at No. 18, firing a dart that set up an 8-foot birdie try to force a playoff. But his putt curled ever-so-slightly to the left, running just past the hole.

“It broke more than I thought,” he said. “If anything, it was a misread. The stroke felt good.”

The silver lining is that Cantlay stands No. 2 on the Finals’ money list, with $108,000 next to his name after the first of four events. PGA TOUR cards await the top 25 who aren’t already graduates from the Tour’s Regular Season.

Having just missed a card from the first wave, Cantlay is off to a fantastic start.

But is it good enough to allow himself a chance to take a week off to rest his back?

“I’m really not sure what I’m going to do right now,” he said.

Part of the dilemma is that with the Finals in their debut season, there’s no measuring stick. No one really knows how much money it’ll take to lock up one of those 25 cards. And since Finals earnings also determine entry priority to start next season, it isn’t enough to just grab the last card.

Crunching a few numbers, Cantlay appears in good shape. His $108,000 paycheck equates to finishing 10th in all four Finals events. Of course, there will be another winner and runner-up at next week’s Chiquita Classic to shake up the top.

Also, a quick look at each of the past three Tour seasons also shows that whoever finished runner-up in the season opener still hadn’t fallen out of the top 10 after four events.

On the other hand, recall that Cantlay – who won the Colombia Championship in Week 2 – tried to stand pat for three months after hurting his back and wound up sliding too far down the ladder.

“I’m not sure,” he said when asked about the dilemma. “I’ve got to talk to some family and friends, see what’s up, and I’ve got to see how I’m feeling tomorrow.”

That’s been the way it’s been since Cantlay decided to re-enter the fray: Week by week, day by day.

He acknowledged at midweek that if he’d been able to qualify for the first batch of PGA TOUR cards, he wouldn’t have come to Sycamore Hills. He might have taken a couple of events off before playing for positioning.

After getting knocked out, though, “sitting events out was not an option in my head. I was going to go for it (and) do everything I could going forward to play well.”

Cantlay has had to make adjustments, limiting his warmup time to perhaps 40 balls on the range and foregoing any swing work after a round.

“Less is more,” he said, adding that the back hurts least after the first couple of holes in a round because he gets to walk between shots.

It worked wonderfully for the first three days. Though the dull ache was a constant presence, Cantlay’s ball-striking kept him in the fairway and set up plenty of birdies.

Sunday, though, was a different story. Though he hit 10 of 14 fairways and 12 greens in regulation, the recovery efforts put extra stress on the back. Three bogeys in a four-hole span around the turn wiped out what was left of a three-shot lead to begin the day.

On at least two occasions, Cantlay could be seen clutching his back after a shot from the rough.

“Coming out of the rough, a couple of shots definitely aggravated it,” he said. “It’s been like that all week. It was worse today, but only just because I’ve been playing the last however many days.”

It’s been three weeks now, factoring in Cantlay’s two missed cuts to end the Regular Season. Rest is the only way it’ll truly get better.

First, though, there’s a PGA TOUR card to secure. Not to mention a priority number of some value.

Stay tuned.