Analysis: Cantlay tough on the course, even tougher off it

Sep 5, 2021, 10:22 PM | Updated: Sep 6, 2021, 10:31 am

ATLANTA (AP) — Patrick Cantlay made a name for himself — not just a nickname — in a span of two weeks that will be remembered as much for his sheer grit as the $15 million he earned from winning the FedEx Cup.

Four times at the BMW Championship, he stood over a putt from 6 feet or longer knowing that he would lose if he missed. Cantlay made them all to eventually win in a six-hole playoff over Bryson DeChambeau.

One week later, with the FedEx Cup on the line against the world’s No. 1 player, Cantlay delivered three pressure shots in succession — a 6-foot sliding bogey putt on the 17th green to keep a one-shot lead, a 361-yard drive that split the 18th fairway and a 6-iron that was nothing short of perfection to set up a one-shot win over Jon Rahm in the Tour Championship.

The satisfaction came more from winning than what he won.

And the toughness he showed inside the ropes wasn’t inspired by the high stakes.

That came from when he wasn’t playing at all, and wondered if he would ever have a chance to celebrate a moment like this.

“As tough as those tough times were,” he said Sunday at East Lake, “they made me who I am.”

Cantlay was the No. 1 amateur in the world, the low amateur in the 2011 U.S. Open, so good that he shot 60 at the Travelers Championship between his freshman and sophomore years at UCLA. And it all changed during his rookie year on the PGA Tour.

He described the pain he felt warming up for the second round at Colonial in 2013 as someone plunging a knife down his back; the consequences were dire.

He didn’t play for another year, and then only sparingly, because no matter what doctors tried, and no matter how much better he felt in daily life, it still hurt to play golf.

Cantlay recalled one spine doctor whose advice was jarring: Stop playing golf.

“I had already been out 18 months or two years, and I said, ‘How long?’ He said, ‘Maybe a year.’ He was dead serious. And that really shocked me, and I was scared,” Cantlay said.

Until that point, he had few disappointments in life. Cantlay won’t say he lived a charmed life because he worked hard for what he had.

But he agreed to take a year off, and while his back improved, another dose of devastation came when he least expected it. He was out to dinner with his best friend and caddie, Chris Roth, when Roth was killed in a hit-and-run accident while the two were crossing the street.

He had to come back from more than a lower spine injury.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s given me great perspective,” Cantlay said. “Growing up, I felt like I got better and better in golf, and life got better and better. And then it got as bad as it could have been. I felt as low as it could have been for a little while. Coming out on the other side of that, I feel like I am a better person having gone through those dark days.”

It made him tough, yes, and grateful to be playing, which is not to suggest he is willing to settle for being able to play golf for a living.

Cantlay returned after two years and three months away from the game at Pebble Beach in 2017, and he holed a 45-foot birdie putt on his final hole to make the cut on the number. Managing a limited schedule while returning from a severe back injury, along with ankle issues that surfaced briefly, he played only 12 times and still made it to the Tour Championship.

That would have surprised no one who saw a game that has no apparent weakness except for the lack of victories. Those came in bunches this year.

The Tour Championship, where he started with a two-shot lead as the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup standings, was his fourth title of the year. No one else won more than twice.

Along the way, he picked up a moniker — “Patty Ice” — and more support than he has ever heard on the course. Cantlay is more old-school than self-promoter, and a $40 million bonus pool is not going to get him to change.

Even so, the cheers were inspiring.

“I can tell after last week that it felt like more people were on my side, and that feels great,” he said. “And so maybe the nickname has helped me out with that a little bit because it lets me be who I am. But I’ve always said that I’m going to let my golf clubs do the talking, and I’m going to put all my energy into playing the best golf I can and let everything else take care of itself.

“I did that this week,” he said. “And so if I keep playing golf like this, I will be hard to ignore.”

___

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Analysis: Cantlay tough on the course, even tougher off it