by Cameron Morfit
ATLANTA – The road to the FedExCup title began with Starting Strokes, with No. 1 seed Patrick Cantlay staked to an early lead at the 30-man TOUR Championship.
But really, the road to the FedExCup began earlier than that. Much earlier. In fact, Cantlay (final-round 69, 21 under total) began mapping out his one-shot victory over Jon Rahm (68) years ago, at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, California. Already an accomplished junior, he would study the older, more accomplished players like Paul Goydos and John Cook. What did they do well? What could he learn?
That maturation process has now gone into overdrive, first with Cantlay’s lights-out putting and overtime victory over Bryson DeChambeau at the BMW Championship – earning a new moniker, “Patty Ice” – and now with his wire-to-wire victory at the TOUR Championship, where he lived into the new nickname to win the FedExCup.
“You know, as good as it felt to feel like I slept on the lead for two straight weeks darned near, it feels good to not necessarily have the lead anymore and be done and closed out,” he said. “It was a long year … just a ton of golf and a ton of pressure golf.
“But I'm very grateful and happy to be here,” he continued, “and I'm really proud of myself for staying in the moment and delivering when it counted.”
Oddly, the nickname, which was emblazoned on the back of an Atlanta Falcons jersey for this week, was a factor. It wasn’t the name itself; it was the feeling behind it.
“It could have been a different nickname, but he really appreciated that the fans got behind him,” said Matt Minister, Cantlay’s caddie for the last four and a half years. “Because up until last week, everybody else was being cheered for, and then they really started cheering for him. That’s what made the difference, that they got behind him.”
Cantlay’s old nickname?
“Sheldon, from ‘Big Bang Theory,’” Jamie Mulligan, his coach, said with a laugh.
Let the record show that your new FedExCup champ has traveled a long road that was by turns predictable and ghastly. Through it all, though, he has held tight to perhaps his greatest strength: knowing precisely what to let soak in, and what to let slide by.
An old soul, Cantlay is 29 going on 84, according to his coach.
“He hasn’t probably ever listened to a full song that was written after 1979,” Mulligan said. “He’s listening to Led Zeppelin, Jackson Browne, Cream.”
He reads biographies about influential figures much older than that.
Then again, Cantlay isn’t entirely swayed by the wisdom of his elders. His parents went to USC; he went to UCLA, where he won the Fred Haskins and Jack Nicklaus awards.
He shot a second-round 60 at the 2011 Travelers Championship, the first 60 or better by an amateur in PGA TOUR history, announcing his arrival as a force. Cantlay turned pro after his sophomore year in June, 2012. He played the Korn Ferry Tour, took the odd sponsor’s exemption on the big TOUR. It was all going according to plan.
Then it wasn’t. Cantlay was at Colonial Country Club in Texas, warming up for the second round of the Charles Schwab Challenge, when it felt like someone had knifed him in the back. He WD’d, but his nightmarish odyssey was just beginning.
After a seven-month break, his back still wasn’t right. Cantlay struggled in 2014, sat out 2015 entirely, and still wasn’t feeling well at the outset of 2016.
Then came tragedy. Cantlay and his best friend, Chris Roth, had drawn up plans back at Servite High School in Anaheim: Cantlay would play the TOUR, Roth would be his caddie. But those plans were cut short. Out one night, out with Cantlay, Roth was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street on the way to a restaurant in Newport Beach. “Just a freak, one-in-a-million type deal,” Cantlay later called it.
He spent the rest of 2016 rebuilding emotionally and physically. He returned in 2017, and in limited action out of concern for his L5 vertebrae, fulfilled his Major Medical Extension in just his second start. The turning point came seemingly out of nowhere: a runner-up finish to Adam Hadwin at the Valspar Championship.
“I think the biggest thing is it's given me great perspective,” Cantlay said Sunday of his trials. “I think for a long time, everything just went great. 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,” he continued. “But it gives me great perspective and it makes me very grateful to be in the position I'm in today, because it wasn't always a sure thing. I was very close to going back to school and putting golf behind me.”
He got his first win at the 2018 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He moved to South Florida, where he could be around peers like Justin Thomas. His maturation gathered even more momentum when he had a chance to win the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide but finished fourth.
He sought the counsel of Jack Nicklaus and was told to look up and enjoy himself the next time he was in such a situation. He won the Memorial the next year (2019).
“First off, the way his body has matured,” Minister said, when asked to run down the changes he’s seen in his boss. “When I first met him, he was around 180 pounds. Now he’s 200 pounds. He’s bulked up and turned into a man. He’s so much stronger. He hits the ball not as far as some of the long hitters, but he can hold his own.”
As his turnaround at the Memorial suggests, the change has been more than physical.
“With each passing year, he’s been better in these situations, better dealing with the crowds, better in the media,” Minister said. “His interviews are fantastic; you see it with each passing year, his maturity and how comfortable he is being out here.”
Staked to a lead over the rest of the 30-man field at the TOUR Championship, Cantlay got perhaps the greatest test of mental stamina of his career. He passed with flying colors, making no worse than bogey and refusing to help the chase pack.
The scariest moment came at the 17th hole Sunday, but Rahm missed his 11-foot birdie putt, and Cantlay, out of position after missing his drive and approach right, and a duffed chip, made from six feet for bogey, limiting the damage to a shot.
When it was over, all the lessons at the knees of his elders, the hard times, the move to South Florida, the newly won “Patty Ice” handle – Cantlay had soaked up and lived into every ounce of whatever could help him. And he’d let slide the rest.
The old soul was a man in full, a complete player, and a FedExCup champion.