As the FexExCup Playoffs move to their finale at East Lake, the story at the top could not have played out any better for the PGA Tour. The first two stops featured wins by two of their most recognizable players, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, and third was a feel-good win that added a touch of humanity to the money chase. Add in that the new face of the Tour, Jordan Spieth, sits atop the standings with a better-than-even chance of taking the top prize for the second time in three years.
What the Tour has also excelled at in recent years is working with their broadcast partners to sell the stories of survivors trying to make it to Atlanta in the single-elimination events. In Chicago, as Australian Marc Leishman marched wire to wire to win the BMW Championship, the final spots in the 30-man field of the Tour Championship played to nearly the end. Players like Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen failed to make the cut, missing by as little as one swing of the golf club.
As good as Leishman’s redemption win after a back-nine collapse two weeks earlier might be, Patrick Cantlay may have authored an even better script. There are so many layers to peel back on Cantlay’s tale, but know that he faced a 10’9” putt at the 72nd hole for birdie and a trip to the finals. The alternative was to settle for a remarkable comeback season with an incomplete ending.
To understand where Cantlay finds himself at East Lake, you need to know where Cantlay has been — to the top. In 2011, in the midst of a breakout freshmen year at UCLA, he climbed to the top of the Amateur ranks. In March of that year, he became the #1 amateur in the world in March and remained there for 55 weeks. In his major championship debut at Congressional, he tied for 21st, and that was a warmup performance. The following week at the Travelers, still an amateur, he put up a third-round 60, the best-ever score by an amateur in a PGA Tour event.
Afterward he gave a glimpse of the low-key, in-the-moment philosophy that’s his profile today. “I tried to have no expectations,” he said, leading into the tournament. “Just so I didn’t limit myself. And you know, you can’t expect to win, but I just was going to have no expectations, try and play the golf course as best I could. And I knew if I played to my capability, I’d have a good finish.” It’s probably easy to take what comes when your first four PGA Tour appearances are all top 25 and you’re still an amateur.
He turned professional after his second U.S. Open trip in 2012 and earned his Tour card the following year, finishing 11th in the priority rankings. But 2013 was life-changing, not because he earned his card, but because he nearly lost his career. Playing in the PGA Tour’s Colonial in May, he injured his back on the range. He tried to play through the injury in the coming weeks until he sought a medical evaluation and learned he had a stress fracture of his L5 vertebrae.
Determined not to squander his playing status on Tour for 2014, he made five starts before shutting it down with the back problems. In 2015 he made one start in the wraparound season and was done again. For all of 2016, he sat out, trying to get his back to a point where he could resume his career.
When the calendar rolled over to 2017, he decided it was that time. But he faced the additional challenge of playing on a 10-event medical exemption. He only needed two tournaments. Following a T48 at the AT&T Pro-am, he chased Adam Hadwin to the finish line at the Valspar Championship, bogeying the final hole to miss a playoff by one, but his $680,000 paycheck secured playing privileges for the remainder of the year. Thrilled? Excited? No. Still Patrick Cantlay. “I’m not really thinking about the next tournament. I was just trying to go out and win a golf tournament.”
Knowing the back was a work in progress, Cantlay scheduled with an eye toward rest, never playing consecutive weeks through the PGA Championship. He tacked on a T3 at Harbour Town, and with only nine stops on his calendar, he made the field at Northern Trust for the start of the FedExCup Playoffs. A T10 there got him to Boston. A T13 in Boston got him to Chicago and his first back-to-back starts since his return.
When he converted the birdie at 18 at Conway Farms, he was uncertain if he had made the top 30. (He finished 29th.) There was no gesticulating, no dancing, no animated high fives. Cantlay is about doing what he expects of himself, and this was what he accomplished. “Yeah. Feels good. You know, nice to play all the Playoff events. It means a lot for next week. I can pick my schedule and, you know, it’s great. You know, the way I’ve been playing, I expected to play well this week, and I expected to make it to the Tour Championship.”
His trip to the Tour Championship marks only the third time a player has made that field in 12 starts or fewer. (Rory McIlroy in 2015 and President’s Cup Captain Steve Stricker in 2013 were the other two.) He’ll use the same approach he has taken in his abbreviated career, with a mild concern about what four events in five weeks will mean for his back. He knows his finish has already made him a winner for 2018. “It’s going to be nice being in all the Majors and feeling like I can compete with the best players in the world. Getting the chance to do it on a week-in, week-out basis is going to be great.”
And it will be interesting to see if the 25-year-old can hold out against the young brigade he joined in 2011 at the Walker Cup — skipping social media. “I won’t be joining Twitter, ever. That’s just not for me. It’s not for me,” he said years ago. A statement well within the 140-character limit.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.