Patrick Cantlay on his first run at a green jacket, and why it bodes well for his future
Amid all the chaos during the final round of last year’s Masters, for a brief moment just before 1 p.m., one name stood atop the leader board. Not Woods, or Molinari, or Koepka or Finau or Schauffele. This one-time leader was something of a forgotten character in one of golf’s most dramatic afternoons: Patrick Cantlay.
The soft-spoken Californian had his nose in front after an eagle at the par-5 15th, but back-to-back bogeys on 16 and 17 relegated him to a T-9 finish. In the 19 months since, Cantlay has won twice and played on his first U.S. national team at last year’s Presidents Cup, where his singles victory over Joaquin Niemann helped propel the Americans to a comeback victory.
Cantlay returns to Augusta National this week brimming with confidence as he’s fresh off an impressive victory at the Zozo Championship, where he leapfrogged Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas for his third PGA Tour victory and first in his home state. The furthest thing from an oversharer, the 28-year-old spoke in detail with Golf Digest about his preparation for Augusta, the toughest part of golf (it’s not what you think) and why he only speaks when he feels it’s his turn to.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity
Daniel Rapaport: You’d been playing well heading into the Zozo, but you hadn’t really contended in a tournament since January. I’m always curious when guys win: did you sense that a week like that was around the corner?
Patrick Cantlay: I feel like I’ve been playing well the last couple months, just hadn’t had four rounds come together in the same week. But I feel like my game had been trending in the right direction and I had been working on the right things. I was a little slow coming out of the gates after the break.
It’s a weird year just with not having a ton of events after the COVID break. You know how golf is, you can have a terrible year all year and win twice, and all the sudden it’s the best year of your career.
DR: Do you pay attention to world rankings?
PC: Not a ton. I’ll see them occasionally in a stat or something, they’ll come up and I’ll see them. But in general, no, I just try and go out every week and win and let everything take care of itself.
DR: You mentioned the slow start after the COVID break. What do you attribute that to? Was that just golf, or did you find it hard to kick it into gear after the months of inactivity?
PC: Just golf. I had some nice momentum pre-break, and then coming out it just took a while to find some momentum again. Toward the end, the last couple months, my game has been trending in the right direction. It’s nice to be trending in the right direction right around the corner.
DR: A lot of guys at the Zozo were talking about working on certain things, certain shots especially from Augusta. Is that kind of thing overrated? Does your Masters prep look different than your prep for any other major?
PC: It’s a little overrated, to be honest. You can’t change the prep too much. Usually the prep that gets you ready for a normal week, I’m gonna stick to mostly that. I will try on working on hitting my irons just a little higher, but nothing too radical. With those green complexes, it does help to hit your irons a little higher. I’ll work on that a little, but for the most part it’ll be business as usual.
DR: It feels like people forget that you held the solo lead on Sunday at the Masters last year. What do you take away from that day and that disappointing finish?
PC: I focus on the good play. I’m not positive, but I probably had the lowest score for the weekend. Any time you can do that at a major, it bodes well for the future. You have to put yourself in those situations more often to come out on top. I played really well for 33 holes on the weekend and came out of nowhere, obviously didn’t want those bogeys to happen. But it’s all about getting more comfortable in that situation. Odds wise, just give yourself more chances.
DR: You’ve worked with the same coach, Jamie Mulligan, since you were a kid. How has that relationship been important to your development as a golfer?
PC: Lots of coaches out on Tour start working a little later after they’ve already been pros or had some success, but the interesting thing about Jamie and me is that we started working together when I was 8 or 9. I had just started playing tournaments at the time. He really molded my swing and my game into what it is today. It’s really rewarding to be able to work with someone who is also my friend and who I’ve spent that much time with.
DR: You played in the 2012 Masters as an amateur. What do you remember from that week?
PC: Really special week. When you grow up, you imagine playing in the Masters, so your first time—especially the first time, staying in the Crow’s Nest, it just felt really special. Went to the amateur dinner, the practice rounds were really fun. Just really appreciative to be there. I think it’s really cool what they do, allowing the amateurs to play, it adds a different dimension to the tournament. Fortunately made the cut and was low amateur, so that’s just a really fond memory. Waiting around on Sunday, they put us in a cabin to wait for the closing ceremonies. Definitely one of my favorite memories in golf.
DR: How will this November Masters be different from a normal one?
PC: I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone really knows. I’d imagine the golf course will play softer tee-to-green. They can do whatever they want with the greens with the sub-air they have and just how good they are at getting it where they want. Maybe a little longer, less tight lies, but no one really knows until we get there. They’re gonna try to get it to play as similar to April as possible.
DR: What’s the hardest part of golf for you?
PC: The travel. It’s an underrated part of what we do. Just being in so many different cities, all year, 22, 23, 24, 25 weeks out of the year. Not being at home, it takes a toll. Just managing your energy and managing your travel is a big part of it. For me, the hardest part is just being somewhere new all the time and trying to set up a home base.
DR: You’re quieter than the other twentysomethings on Tour. You’re not as active on social media, that sort of thing. Has it always been that way?
PC: For me, it’s always been very important to be humble and to speak when it’s my turn to speak. I don’t like talking when I don’t know what I’m talking about. I try to be informed about what I do talk about, and when I have something meaningful to say, I’ll say it. If I don’t, I won’t, just let my game do the talking. That’s the way I’ve always gone about it. It fits my personality. I enjoy letting people see the real me, and I enjoy showing that to the fans, it’s just not over-the-top. I’m never really active or loud on social media. Just how I’ve always been.
DR: You come off as a rather cerebral guy. Does golf fulfill you intellectually?
PC: It’s definitely stimulating because there’s so many aspects to it. If you are smarter about it, and you pay attention, you can glean some insights and use them to your advantage. It’s not so stimulating intellectually that I don’t have other interests. I definitely do enjoy reading about things that aren’t golf, learning about things that aren’t golf. But for me, getting prepared to play good golf and playing good golf is a representation of how good your systems are, and how you adhere to the system, and how good the system is that you put yourself in. The fun part for me, and the challenging part for me, is deciding the best way to set up the system and going out and doing it, and staying rather objective in judging whether the system in place gets you the desired outcome. And then you tweak the system to get a better result. That’s what the game is for me. And that part is very intellectually stimulating. It makes it an all-encompassing pursuit for me.
DR: It’s a cliché to say that the adversity you’ve gone through—your back injuries and losing your friend/caddie, Chris Roth—has made you stronger, but what impact has it really had on your life? Years later, you're on the other side, you’re back in the top 10 in the world, things are good. But I’m wondering what lasting impact that has had on your development as a golfer and a person.
PC: The biggest thing is appreciation for when things are good. For a long time I thought that if you put in hard work and did the right things, only good things would happen. I’ve come to realize that’s not the case. I think lots of young people, and a lot of my peers, who through no fault of their own have had a lot of success from a young age, they might not appreciate things being good. It can feel like a given, a constant. For me, I’m just really appreciative of my hard work paying off and of things going well. Just really thankful for all the things I do have, realizing that things can change. You should enjoy the really good times, because things aren’t necessarily always going to be like that.