By Damian Dottore
Thumbnail: Getty Images
Article Photo: Damon Tarver
Hanging out with friends was one of the things that gave Patrick Cantlay solace after a sore back forced him to put his promising pro golf career on hold in May 2013.
And if anyone could cheer up Cantlay it was his caddie and longtime friend, Chris Roth. They had been practically inseparable since they were members of the Servite varsity golf team.
It was around 1 a.m. on a February night a year ago when the two friends decided they would walk to Woody's Wharf in Newport Beach. Cantlay was still dealing with the latest diagnosis from his doctor.
After dominating as an amateur – Cantlay was the No. 1 player in the World Amateur Golf Rankings for a record 55 weeks – he finally seemed poised to start cashing in on the PGA Tour when the back injury struck. For three years he struggled to return to the sport full-time, but he had just received devastating news – the stress fracture in his lower back wasn't healing and he couldn't touch a club, not even a putter, for at least 10 months.
But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Roth was walking about 10 feet ahead of Cantlay as they got to the intersection of Newport Boulevard and 30th Street. As Roth started across the street, a hit-and-run driver smashed into him, sending him flying through the air to the other side of the intersection.
Cantlay rushed to his friend, dialing 911 on the way.
When he got to his caddie, blood was everywhere.
Roth's heart was still beating, but Cantlay said he knew his friend "wasn't there anymore." Later that night, Roth was pronounced dead at Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana.
He was 24.
"It still bothers me every day. It changes the way that you see things for a while. Maybe not forever, you get numb to it," Cantlay said. "For a while, I couldn't care less about everything. Not just golf. Everything that happened in my life for a couple months didn't feel important. Nothing felt like it mattered."
At the time, Cantlay was getting ready to re-enroll in college, but not long after Roth's death, he had to start picking his classes. He said he just didn't have it in him to do it.
There were times, his father Steve said, when his son started to explore some opportunities outside of golf. He wasn't getting any better despite all the time he was taking off.
But in the last year, Steve Cantlay said Patrick has "committed" to being a golfer again. Losing Roth, the elder Cantlay said, is partly responsible for the change in attitude.
And Thursday, when he steps on the course to begin the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the first PGA Tour event that his aching back has allowed him to play since November 2014, Cantlay will be competing with a new purpose.
"I know he thinks of and will continue to keep Chris close to him in his life," Steve Cantlay said. "I know that he can probably best honor Chris and their close friendship by getting back to golf and competing on the tour. And that obviously is what our family wants for him because we just want him to be happy and fulfilled."
Servite golf coach Dane Jako remembers visiting Cantlay in his Fashion Island apartment not long after that tragic night. Jako said they sat there for two hours, saying no more than 10 words to each other.
"I mean what can you say at a time like that?" Jako asked.
Jako recalled how the three of them would sit in Jako's office at Servite when Cantlay was just a freshman, talking about how Roth was going to be Cantlay's caddie when he made it to the PGA Tour.
"It would have been one of the Bones/Phil Mickelson relationships I am sure," Jako said. "And even if he wouldn't have been Pat's caddie forever, they would have still been friends."
Roth had a very special relationship with Cantlay, Jako said. He was one of the few people who could really level with Cantlay, and he kind of served as a translator of sorts. Cantlay is a bit of an introvert and rarely wears his emotions on his sleeve, so Jako said he would often look to Roth to get an idea of how Cantlay really felt.
Jako said when Cantlay spoke at the memorial service for Roth, he watched Cantlay grow up 20 years.
"It has to be the hardest thing that he has ever gone through. He rarely talks about it," Jako said. "I can't even imagine what he went through."
While it might not be as special of a moment when he walks to the first tee at Pebble as it would have been with Roth by his side, Cantlay said he is still excited to begin this new chapter of his career.
"I am ready to play, but we have to start slow and go from there. It is going to be fun," Cantlay said. "It has been a long time coming."
There's never a good time for a professional golfer to go down with an injury, but the timing of this one seemed particularly cruel.
At the time, Cantlay's potential seemed limitless.
When he turned pro after his sophomore year at UCLA in 2012, he was among the most decorated amateurs in history. The Jack Nicklaus Award. The Ben Hogan Award. The Haskins Award. They were all in his trophy case alongside his prizes for being the low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open.
But just when the prize money started to roll in, the injury happened.
While warming up on the range at Colonial Country Club before his second round at the 2013 Crowne Plaza Invitational, Cantlay started to feel pain in his lower back.
At first, his doctors thought it was a muscle issue. It took almost two months to reach the correct diagnosis that it was a stress fracture.
And there was only one cure. Rest. Lots of it. He was told it could take anywhere from six weeks to a year to heal.
"I didn't imagine myself being out for so long. It was frustrating to miss that week (at Colonial), but at the time I thought it was just that week," Cantlay said. "If I would have known that I was going to be out for this long, it would have been devastating."
He tried to make some more comebacks along the way, but each one ended abruptly in pain. He couldn't play for three days in a row without the discomfort getting worse. It takes four rounds to win on the PGA Tour.
The 2016 CareerBuilder Challenge in La Quinta was where Cantlay said he planned on returning once and for all, but his back started hurting. Really bad this time. More rest was needed. Only now, he had to stay completely away from the game. No more comebacks for at least a year.
"That was extremely difficult. Demoralizing. You work for such a long time to try and achieve something and then someone says you have to take nine months or a year off. You don't feel like you are getting any closer," Cantlay said. "It is hard for a while not to do anything, but that is what they are saying is the best thing for you. It is difficult to wake up and say there is not a lot I can do today."
Cantlay is up to playing 6-7 days a week now. He is still working with his old swing coach, Jamie Mulligan, at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, and Mulligan has made some minor adjustments to his swing to take some pressure off his back. None, Cantlay, said will be noticeable.
Cantlay also has added a workout regimen to his daily routine, not to bulk up but to strengthen his core muscles, using simple exercises with lots of reps to keep his back in shape.
He definitely appears to be ready for this comeback. Cantlay recently set the course record on the Mountain Course at the Vintage Club in Palm Springs, shooting a 63.
But Cantlay said he's not sure when he will make his next PGA Tour appearance. He will reassess things after Pebble, one of the 10 starts he has remaining on his major medical exemption.
"I am just going to go out and do my process and my deal and see what happens," Cantlay said. "After being off for so long there are no expectations. It doesn't even feel like I know what to expect. But I am ready to play, and my goal is to try and win the tournament."
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