Could the average golf fan pick Patrick Cantlay out of a photo lineup?
But go ahead and check the current standings for the 2019 U.S. Presidents Cup team and you’ll find him at No. 8, above the usual suspects such as Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Phil Mickelson and captain Tiger Woods.
On paper, Cantlay is a 26-year-old from Long Beach, Calif. with one PGA Tour win.
In reality, he’s quietly pulling off one of the most remarkable comeback stories in golf. He’s just not ready to sit back and unpack everything he’s been through.
“I’ve come a long way, but it’s funny how quickly your expectations can jump with some success,” Cantlay said.
Expectations were high as can be for Cantlay in his late teenage years. He was Golfweek’s 2011 College Player of the Year at UCLA and won the Haskins Award. Then it all fell apart. He was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae shortly after his pro career started and ultimately missed the better part of three years due to back injuries.
When he finally returned in early 2017, the former No. 1-ranked amateur was No. 1,424 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
There were no expectations, just a lot of happy college coaches and teammates who once thought he might never play again.
He’s since risen 1,406 spots, all the way No. 18 coming off a T-5 finish this month at the Hero World Challenge.
That’s why when he looks you in the eyes and says he wants to keep climbing to No. 1, you start to believe it’s possible. There’s a good chance he’ll make his U.S. professional team debut in Australia for the 2019 Presidents Cup, and a tee time at Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup isn’t out of the question at all.
Cantlay would love to be a part of those team events for the first time. But he’s setting his sights even higher.
“It’s just a byproduct of having goals to win events and to be the best player in the world,” Cantlay said. “That’s what my goals are.”
What’s most impressive about Cantlay’s game is the level of consistency for a guy who missed so much time. Throughout this comeback he’s had 13 top-10 finishes in 39 tournaments, hitting that benchmark in one of every three starts.
He’s only missed two cuts in that time. He finished 20th in the 2017-18 FedEx Cup standings, ahead of names you hear far more often such as Jon Rahm, Gary Woodland and Marc Leishman.
His title defense in Vegas resulted in a solo second this fall, and he finished T-7 at the WGC-HSBC Champions.
The golf keeps getting better, he’s getting more familiar with all the courses on Tour and all the pieces are there for a breakthrough season following a planned six-week break.
“I feel like my game’s been progressing nicely,” Cantlay said. “Learning the golf courses – (Albany Golf Course) is a tricky place to play for the first time, and I played well this week. It’s just (about) seeing the golf courses and working on some parts of my game and keep on my same progress that I’ve got going.”
Cantlay’s ballstriking largely was responsible for his success last season. He was top 10 in both strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained tee to green. He’ll have to improve on the greens to take the next step, finishing 153rd in strokes gained putting.
Those things surely will come up when he holds a team meeting before kicking off next year. He’ll meet with his people and reflect on strengths and weaknesses, then construct a game plan.
He waited a long time for all this, and he’s not going to slow down while the getting is good.
“I think that’s the mindset you need to have to continue to improve,” Cantlay said. “Any time you get complacent in this game, it can get up there and bite you.”
Injuries and bad luck got the better of Cantlay for a long time. Now we’re finally getting an idea of the player he can be, and it’s easy to spot the potential for years to come. Gwk