A few hundred yards from the clubhouse at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Calif., is an unconventional range known as The Lab. A smallish, browned-out counterpoint to the course's dense greenery, The Lab is a dig-it-out-of-the-ground practice patch where players move freely, angling for different lines to a mish-mash of striped yardage posts, trees and bunkers. It's a scene of laid-back experimentation and old-school swing discovery that has produced three generations of PGA Tour players, including John Cook, Paul Goydos, John Mallinger, John Merrick and Peter Tomasulo. The Lab's latest product, 20-year-old Patrick Cantlay, could someday be its best. Cantlay turned pro in June after a terrific amateur career highlighted by a mind-bending 60 shot while playing on a sponsor's invitation at the Travelers Championship in 2011. His achievements are one thing, but it's his dynamic golf swing, crafted from age 8 under instructor Jamie Mulligan, that invites wonder as to how good he might one day be.
An early sign of Cantlay's talent manifested itself when he attended one of Mulligan's junior golf camps. "There were 98 kids there, and I offered a Snickers bar to those who could throw a golf ball and hit a tree a short distance away," Mulligan says. "They all threw the ball hard and missed the tree, except for Patrick. He tossed the ball softly and rolled it up against the tree. It showed the innate kind of gift you can't coach. Patrick was always the kid who got the candy bar." The swing Cantlay and Mulligan developed is a throwback in terms of rhythm and the absence of violent effort. But with a big shoulder turn performed against a relatively quiet lower body, it's also a more contemporary, aggressive style. "We love generating speed and ball compression," Mulligan says, "but you need to combine them with rhythm and good body timing. Patrick has excellent length, which stems not just from swing speed but from making solid contact."
Mulligan says Cantlay's fairly neutral positions, beginning with his setup, allow him flexibility in choosing his shot type. "The goal has always been a swing that allows him to hit different types of shots. He's been creating the shots he sees in his mind from a very early age."
There is work to be done, however. "Like most young people who have quickly acquired new strength, Patrick's hands can get too active," Mulligan says. "His body and the golf club can get out of sequence."
But with this swing, there is little of what Mulligan calls "cleaning up" left. "This has been Patrick's dream forever," Mulligan says, "and now he's living it."