Patrick Cantlay: A Comeback From Nowhere
Photo By Spencer Heyfron
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in 2018.
Patrick Cantlay doesn't automatically come to mind for a list of today's top-five 20-something tour players, which would have been inconceivable five years ago. Time was when he was rising faster than Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas or Jon Rahm.
In 2011-'12, Cantlay had been the No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world for 54 consecutive weeks, a record that still stands. His amateur career included low-am finishes at the U.S. Open and the Masters and being named winner of the Fred Haskins Award, the Phil Mickelson Award, the Ben Hogan Award, the Mark McCormack Medal and the Jack Nicklaus Award—all by the end of his sophomore year at UCLA. Cantlay turned pro that June and won the Colombia Championship in 2013, his second tournament on the Web.com Tour, before suffering a back injury while warming up on the range.
During the next three years, he played a total of nine tournaments while trying to resolve what eventually was diagnosed as a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae.
Cantlay's road back became even more torturous in February 2016 when his best friend, high school teammate and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed in a hit-and-run accident while the two were crossing a street in Newport Beach, Calif.
Almost a year later, Cantlay made the cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and earned fully exempt status on a medical extension in just his second event back with a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship. By the end of the year, he became the first player since Tiger Woods to reach the Tour Championship in 12 or fewer events.
When Cantlay won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open last fall in a playoff, it completed a comeback that seemed remarkable to nearly everyone but him. Here's his story, in his words. – With Mike Stachura
It happened in an instant. When I made a swing on the range at Colonial in May 2013, it felt like a knife had been stuck in my back. Completely out of nowhere. I hadn't known pain like that before, not even when I broke my wrist in eighth grade. This was a stress fracture in my spine, and the only cure was a whole lot of rest. I had no idea one moment could have such a lasting effect. Until then, my life—and especially my golf life—had been pretty charmed. Maybe "charmed" isn't really the right word, because I had worked really hard to put myself in that perfect position. Everything was playing out just about as it should have. I'm not that cocky.
I just expected it to be that way because that's what I had been preparing for. You do the work, you get the results.
But sometimes you don't see everything as clearly as you thought you did. I had to learn how those changes—sudden, unexpected, small or large, happy or sad—were opportunities to give my life momentum and energy and direction.
You've got to imagine every experience you've ever had, no matter how big or small, is literally changing you all the time. You have to learn to be objective about your experiences. If I've learned anything over the past five years—and I've learned a lot—it's that everything you think you know for sure, you really don't. But what I could know for sure is who I am, and what I had to do is commit to the process of understanding all the things I needed to do to excel, to grow, to get better. I call it "the 24/7 game." To be successful, to overcome the hurdles in front of me, I had to commit to the best possible process 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That process interests me.
But process doesn't always immediately have an answer for pain. My back hurt, and other than knowing it hurt, I didn't know anything. Nothing was certain. Every doctor said something different, including that I'd never play golf again, and as I hung on through 2013, watching my Web.com position drop every week while I sat on the sidelines, it started to screw with my expectations. So to hear from the doctor after a couple months off that summer that I might need to skip the rest of the year, it was a shock. I did play a few events to finish high enough in the Web.com playoffs to get my PGA Tour card, but I knew I wasn't healthy. And it wasn't at all clear how I was going to get healthy.
I would wake up every day, do a couple hours of physical therapy and then ... rest. That's it. Every day you want to be doing something active to make yourself feel better. Accepting that doing nothing was mandatory, that was the hardest part.
Fortunately, I had a great support system. In addition to my family, I had the group at Virginia Country Club, where I work with my teacher, Jamie Mulligan. Growing up at Virginia with some of the players Jamie works with—John Cook, Paul Goydos, John Merrick, John Mallinger and Peter Tomasulo—I felt comfortable being around adults even from a young age. I was learning from those guys, learning how to get good enough to be on the PGA Tour. It made it easier for me to see then that my goal of playing on the PGA Tour was possible, maybe even probable.
But now with my back the way it was, it began to seem less clear how I would return to that level. And it would have been easy to get consumed by my frustration, but these guys really helped me stay focused on getting back on tour and playing the way I dreamed about as a kid.
There were other guys at Virginia, too, older members who helped me without even knowing that's what they were doing. We'd play cards or just talk, and those friendships with men who were 70, 80, 90 years old gave me a powerful perspective about taking the long view. I really came to trust their advice, and had I never gotten hurt, I probably would have missed that opportunity. What I really learned from them is that there's a lot you don't know, especially when you're 22.
A BEST FRIEND, AND A TRAGEDY
One of those guys who made a big difference in balancing my perspective was my best friend, Chris Roth. If I was sometimes introverted to a fault, Chris easily made up for it. We'd been friends forever, and he started caddieing for me when I was an amateur. We even joked in high school that we were going to be one of those great caddie-player teams like Bones and Phil. Chris wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself while I was trying to figure out how to get myself physically better in 2014. And 2015. And 2016.
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
In February 2016, having not really played golf in more than a year and having just decided I couldn't play at the CareerBuilder Challenge, I was not in the best place mentally. There wasn't a real clear path. That month, I met with my doctor, and his report was worse than I had expected: Don't even pick up a club for the rest of the year. Another lost season on the PGA Tour. Devastating. It just seemed like the vision I had for myself kept getting farther and farther away, maybe even disappearing completely. I just felt like I kept getting kicked in the teeth over and over and over again.
Being as discouraged as I was, it took someone as positive as Chris to get me up off the couch. That's just what happened that Friday night of the accident.
We were walking down the street in Newport Beach on what had been a really great night. And then in an instant, it wasn't. A car came out of nowhere and hit Chris so hard, it threw his body all the way across the intersection. He couldn't have been walking more than 10 feet in front of me. I knew it was awful immediately, even as I was dialing 911. And I knew Chris wasn't really there anymore by the time I got to him. It was that quick.
Nothing made sense for a while after that. I was with Chris' family, and I felt giving the eulogy was the thing I was supposed to do. I remember telling them, "If you need somebody to say something, I can do it." I just wanted to do a good job, to illuminate a little part of what he was like to everybody. It was easy to paint him in a good light because you just had to paint him in the light that he was. The pain I had been in for those past three years was nothing like this. I know other people tie my injury and Chris' death together, but one is temporary, and the other is permanent.
As tough as it was to see a future in golf before Chris was killed, it was even tougher to see anything after he was gone. And not having golf to turn to made it 10 times worse.
I'd even considered going back to school, but I wasn't finished with golf. I can't imagine doing anything halfway. I thought, If I go back to school, I want to go back to school and only do school and get all A's and spend my time making business connections so I can set up what I'm going to do after school. So I didn't feel like I could do the physical therapy and get the kind of rest I needed to compete if I also had school going. Sure, there are 24 hours in a day, and yes, you can do multiple things. But not to do everything 100 percent.
But 100 percent is what rehab really required. And that's hard to do, especially when I had seen so many doctors. I was getting various opinions on what's the right thing to do, so picking one and sticking to it, even when I was having doubts, was difficult. It was hard for me to believe I was picking the right treatment strategy, and it was easy to worry that I might be going backward without even realizing it. I found myself wondering if 75 percent was the best I would ever be, and what would that mean? Then another nine months go by, and it was hard for me not to go see a different guy who says he can make me better in a week or two. The simple fact is this: Not knowing spent a lot of my mental energy.
Eventually, with help from the people in my inner circle and the right physical therapy, I decided I wasn't going to let it bother me mentally even if it was bothering me physically. My attitude was going to be, if it hurts, it hurts, and I don't attach any emotion to it. It just "is," and when it hurts, I do "this," and when it doesn't hurt, I do "this." And I'm not going to wallow in not feeling great.
Still, my progression back was very slow. I might hit 30 balls and then skip a day or two, but I had to be content to make small improvements and not go too fast. Being patient about my career wasn't what I was thinking when I turned pro at 20, for sure. And it certainly didn't get any easier when I was 23 or 24.
When I finally got to the point where I was ready to play the PGA Tour again, I wasn't going to let those 10 tournaments on my medical extension fade away. Playing that first week at Pebble Beach in 2017 without pain was a huge accomplishment. Finishing second a few weeks later at Valspar, I felt great about accomplishing my goal of having a regular tour schedule. And still, I walked off the 72nd hole really disappointed that I had bogeyed the last hole to miss a chance at winning. My mind-set hadn't changed. If I'm playing a tournament, then I was going to prep as best I could to win that tournament. Winning is just a result of the process. I might not have been back all the way physically, but at that instant, when I knew I was playing tournaments to win, I knew I was back mentally. It wasn't about earning money or top-10s or exemptions. Once I got a taste of competing, I really started to believe again that every time I teed it up, I was playing to win. And the byproduct of that attitude was playing my way into the Tour Championship.
‘I just felt like I kept getting kicked in the teeth over and over and over.’
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
WINNING A PLAYOFF
A month and a half after the Tour Championship, it's Sunday, and I'm in a playoff with Alex Cejka and Whee Kim at the Shriners to win my first PGA Tour event, something at one point I was sure was going to happen four years earlier. I've come this far, and all of a sudden, there's this scraggly tree in my way. It's not that I didn't see the tree. I just didn't see it as an obstacle. Not from where I had been. When it came down to the moment, it was simple: I thought, I want to give myself the best shot at making par. I really had only one shot: low, cut 4-iron, keeping it out of the water. I knew I could hit the shot. I decided I was going to do it, and I hit it. That's really all there was to it.
Yeah, it was a great shot, but there was no big surprise in my mind that I was here, holing that winning putt.
Tournament wins are just markers of the work I had been doing. So when I won the tournament, it didn't feel like there needed to be any big exhale or sigh of relief.
Instead, I thought, What do I do now to play the game as good as I possibly can the next time? That's the 24/7 game I talk about playing: learning and growing from each moment.
What did the last five years teach me? When something really bad or life-altering happens, you want to acknowledge that it has affected you. You don't want to shy away from it or pretend like it never happened. You want to realize the great impact it has had on you, but at the same time, even if it's massive, you don't want to have it consume you so you become jaded or apathetic or negative, and you don't like the person you become. Walking the fine line of having something bad happen to you, taking your time to mourn and letting it affect you without letting it beat you down so hard that it takes you away from what you want to accomplish is very difficult. Accepting it and realizing it happened and dealing with it as best you can—that's kind of the art of life.
Photos By Spencer Heyfron