ATLANTA — It was Tuesday morning inside the East Lake clubhouse when Patrick Cantlay sat down next to Justin Thomas for breakfast. Cantlay is a year older, and the two have known each other since their amateur days. This was the first time for Cantlay at East Lake, though.
“Same old Patrick,” said Thomas, who used to try to emulate Cantlay’s putting stroke when the two were younger. “He was doing a crossword. I’m not on the same intelligence level as him. He’s an unbelievably smart dude.”
The two had flown together, along with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, from last week’s BMW Championship outside Chicago to this week’s Tour Championship, where the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings are gathered for the PGA Tour’s season finale. After breakfast, Cantlay and Thomas played nine holes together.
That Thomas, Spieth and Fowler are in the field is hardly a surprise. Between them, they have nine victories this season, including two majors, with Thomas leading the way with five wins. That Cantlay, who made just a dozen starts this year, is teeing it up is nothing short of miraculous.
Cantlay’s journey has been well-documented but bears repeating. As an amateur in 2011, he shot a course-record 60 in the Travelers Championship and led the event through 36 holes. A year later, the college player of year at UCLA turned pro after having spent a record 55 weeks as the world’s top-ranked amateur, and in 2013 he got his first professional victory on the Web.com Tour. The steady career rise, however, was stunted when a back injury sidelined him for most of the next three years. Then, in February 2016, Cantlay was walking across an intersection on a night out in Newport Beach, Calif., a few feet behind his best friend and caddie Chris Roth when Roth was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Roth was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Eventually, Cantlay’s back got better and so did his mind. He entered this season on a major medical extension, and jumped off to a great start by nearly winning in Tampa before finishing second. A month later in Hilton Head, he tied for third and didn’t miss a cut on his way to becoming one of just two rookies to make it to East Lake thanks after rolling in an 11-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Conway Farms last week.
Following in the gallery were Roth’s parents, who might join him this week, too.
“It feels really good,” Cantlay said of qualifying for the Tour Championship, which among other perks gets him into all four majors in 2018 as well as into most World Golf Championships and the Players. “There was a time when just finishing a tour event was one of the goals. I’ve come a long way in the last couple years, year, six months, three months.
“As I started progressing and playing well and feeling comfortable and feeling like my game is good enough, now every time I tee it up I feel like I have a chance to win. I haven’t felt that way since before I was hurt.”
As for his relationship with Roth’s parents and the support they’ve provided a long the way? “I don’t know if I have the right words,” Cantlay said after a long pause. “But it feels really good to have the support from such quality people.”
A DREAM COME TRUE
For Spieth, Thomas and the others in the top five, this week is about trying to win the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus that goes with it.
Pat Perez? He’s just happy to be here.
At age 41 and after nearly two decades on tour, he’s playing in his first Tour Championship.
“For me to win the FedEx Cup, there’s got to be a million things that have to go right and the biggest one happens to be me winning,” he said. “So that along with the other stuff, I mean it’s like -- for me it’s like winning the Powerball, because all the top guys would have to play bad, which they haven’t done all year so for them to all do it at once and me win, it’s about the same odds as the Powerball.”
Perez believes his perspective is different than many at East Lake, primarily because a year ago he wasn’t even playing golf, having undergone shoulder surgery. After eight months off, Perez returned in Malaysia. Two starts later, he won in Mexico for the second victory of his career.
“The amazing thing about it is I didn’t think I was going to start until Sony if I didn’t get that spot [in Malaysia],” Perez said, “so all of this may not have happened if I didn’t go finish seventh in Vegas and then win at Mayakoba and I was already top three in the FedEx. I mean who knows what would’ve happened at Sony.
“The year it’s been, I can’t imagine the fact that I’m here, for one, and have done it at 41, coming back after surgery. It’s just fantasy land.”
HIS DEFENSE RESTS
The biggest name not in the field at East Lake? Defending FedEx Cup champ Rory McIlroy, who tied for 58th at the BMW Championship and was eliminated from the 2017 Playoffs.
The mind-boggling part of that isn’t so much that McIlroy failed to reach the season finale—his putting and wedge play have ben substandard, and his year disjointed between injury, an equipment change, getting married and switching caddies. It’s that just two of the first 10 FedEx Cup winners have made it back to East Lake the following year (Brandt Snedeker in 2013 and Spieth in 2016).
As for McIlroy, his year isn’t quite done just yet. He’ll play in next week’s British Masters, adding the event at the 11th hour, as well as the Dunhill Links Championship the week after, before shutting it down for the year.
“Teeing it up next week gives me one more chance to end 2017 on a high,” McIlroy told the European Tour website. “I kind of had it in the back of my mind that if I didn’t make the Tour Championship then there was a chance to tee it up at Close House.”
THREE THINGS I THINK I THINK
I think the LPGA’s Evian Championship, save for some pretty good golf played by winner Anna Nordqvist, was an abject disaster for one simple reason: You can’t have a major championship be shortened to 54 holes. …
I think you can predict the winner of this year’s FedEx Cup by simply looking at the standings. The last five winners of the $10 million have been ranked in the top six heading into the season finale. …
I think that I’m going to do everything I can to continue to help Hurricane Irma relief efforts in South Florida. Living there, it’s been inspiring to see so many people come together before, during and after the storm. But a lot of people are still struggling to rebuild their lives, in South Florida and around the state, which was hammered by the hurricane. Here’s how you can help..
WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK The top five in the FedEx Cup standings—in order, Spieth, Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman and Jon Rahm—have played like it throughout the Playoffs. Why would this week be any different? If any of them wins at East Lake, they’ll win the FedEx Cup, too. With that in mind, and the aforementioned history of winners, there’s no reason to go anything but chalk. Spieth has won here before, and he’ll do it again this week.