SAN MARTIN, Calif. – The UCLA men’s golf team left for the Gifford Collegiate Championship without freshman Patrick Cantlay. The van drove 10 minutes, reaching Interstate 405, before the team realized its mistake.
It’s a good thing the Bruins didn’t leave their fabulous freshman in Westwood. The team will return home from the Gifford with trophies in hand, thanks in large part to Cantlay’s impressive efforts.
Cantlay shot 6-under 207 at CordeValle for a four-shot victory over Oregon’s Daniel Miernicki and Augusta State’s Henrik Norlander. Cantlay, a semifinalist at this year’s U.S. Amateur, entered the week ranked 24th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
Cantlay has improved in each of his three college starts. He finished 21st at the Ping/Golfweek Preview and seventh at the U.S. Collegiate.
“For me, it’s all about getting as comfortable as I can,” Cantlay said. “Every tournament I just feel more in my own bubble, and more focused.”
Cantlay’s introspection can be attributed to his unusual upbringing. He grew up practicing with PGA Tour players at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Calif. His instructor, Jamie Mulligan, teaches John Cook, Paul Goydos, John Mallinger and John Merrick. Mulligan isn’t a technical teacher; he emphasizes consistent tempo and teaches players the correlation between comfort and good play.
Cantlay’s performance this week was one of the best by an individual this fall, and the best by a freshman. That can be attributed to his maturity.
“He knows he doesn’t hit it as far, and he’s OK with that,” said teammate Gregor Main, who played all 54 holes with Cantlay in a format that put two players from the same team in every foursome. “He plays to his strengths. His short irons are dead on, and the tempo of his golf swing relates to his demeanor. Everything is really calm and cool.”
Cantlay tours the course with the same blank expression on his face, no matter the result. As a handful of fans cheered his approach to the par-4 15th, which lipped out before settling inches away from the hole, he wasn’t celebrating, but cleaning the face of his club.
Cantlay’s performance led UCLA to the team title. The Bruins shot 9-over 1,074 to finish 13 shots ahead of Stanford, which started the final round 11 shots ahead of the Bruins. Northwestern finished third, another 12 shots back. The Bruins validated their No. 1 spot in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“They knew they had a challenge,” UCLA coach Derek Freeman said of his players. “It’s nice to see them respond in a situation where their backs were up against the wall.”
UCLA picked up 17 shots on Stanford in the final six holes of the shotgun start. Stanford’s five scorers were a combined 14 over par, while UCLA’s counters were 3 under par. It was an impressive closing stretch for the Bruins that included two near-hole-outs.
UCLA sophomore Pedro Figueiredo shot 66, more than nine strokes under Wednesday’s scoring average (75.1). Figueiredo, who shot 82-77 the first two rounds, made birdie on five of his final six holes, including a tap-in on the par-4 13th, where his 8-iron shot curled around the hole.
“(Freeman) told me yesterday, ‘If you play well tomorrow, we might have a chance of winning,’ ” Figueiredo said. “I had nothing to lose. I was almost in last place.”
The UCLA players have numbers stitched on their bags. Figueiredo, of Portugal, selected No. 10, because that is the number worn by a playmaker in soccer. “He earned his number today,” Freeman said.
Figueiredo also holed a 60-foot birdie putt on No. 17 after muscling a hybrid shot 220 yards out of the rough. The ball landed 50 yards short of the green before rolling to the back of the putting surface.
Main added a 69, and Mario Clemens shot 70. Cantlay and Pontus Widegren both shot 71.
Cantlay, who started the day with a one-shot lead, made double bogey on his fourth hole Wednesday. He had that double, four bogeys and six birdies Wednesday.
He made four birdies in his final seven holes, all of them from within 6 feet. His final one came on a two-putt from 20 feet on the par-5 18th after he hit his second shot with a hybrid over a lake fronting the green.
“I bounced back and never got too excited, or too down on myself, and it all worked out,” Cantlay said.
Cantlay’s best performances this year – at CordeValle and Chambers Bay – came on contrasting layouts that had one thing in common: They required a player to have excellent control of his ball.
“That just goes to show his maturity. He’s a very, very mature player that handles his emotions well, and in situations like this, you have to handle your emotions,” Freeman said. “He has complete control over those.”
Chambers Bay’s firm, fast conditions and severe slopes required players to curve the ball to get close to pins. CordeValle’s thick rough demanded driving accuracy; high winds required players to work the ball to keep it close.
CordeValle hosted the PGA Tour’s Frys.com Open little more than three weeks ago. The rough was so thick that Norlander could only muscle a sand wedge 68 yards on the 10th hole. A two- to three-club wind blew in the first and third rounds.
It’s no coincidence that many of college golf’s top players were atop the leaderboard this week. Of the top six players, four have competed on the PGA, European or Nationwide tours.
Miernicki, an All-American, shot 79-70 at this year’s Reno-Tahoe Open to miss the cut by just two shots. Norlander missed the cut by three shots at this year’s Scandinavian Masters. Northwestern’s Eric Chun, who finished fourth this week, missed the cut by a stroke at this year’s British Open. Stanford’s Sihwan Kim, who finished sixth, finished in the top 10 at the 2008 Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational. Norlander and Kim shared the ’07 Gifford title.
They were all bested this week by Cantlay, who proved why he’s one of college golf’s emerging talents.