If you read about it, then it seemed like a copybook case of a player choking under pressure. At the PGA Tour’s Shriners Children’s Open earlier this month, Patrick Cantlay, the pre-tournament favourite, seemed on track to win his seventh event in 18 months. Tied for the lead with Tom Kim on the final hole of the event, Cantlay, known as ‘ice-man’ for his unflappable on-course demeanour, made an uncharacteristic bad swing off the tee. That shot ended up in the rough, and led to a series of dropped shots on account of an unplayable lie and an approach that landed in the water hazard. It was a stunning, and unusual capitulation by a player who’s become known for holding his nerve under duress.
Afterward, Cantlay seemed disappointed but not devastated. “I made a bad swing, and it went where it went,” he said after the round. “I played well all week for the most part. “One bad swing at the end. Obviously would have liked to have closed the deal out today, but sometimes that’s golf,” he added impassively.
Unlike most players who do their best to put up a brave face after suffering a crushing loss, Cantlay’s matter-of-fact comments did not seem disingenuous, or out of place—just a reflection of a bad day at the office.
You see Cantlay, whose spectacular success in the last two seasons has elevated the 30-year-old to the rarefied echelons of the Top-5 players in the world, is powered by an other-worldly mental strength and fortitude. He’s got a great swing, to be sure, but it’s Cantlay’s steely resolve and balanced perspective to the game that have separated the man from his peers.
How does such a young player have that level of maturity you ask? The answer, as it often is, lies in adversity, and has nothing to do with golf.
In 2016 Cantlay’s best friend and caddy Chris Roth was knocked down by a speeding motorist when the two were on a night out in Newport Beach, California. 24-year-old Roth died in 23-year-old Cantlay’s arms. For Cantlay, who, at the time, had not been able to play competitive golf for three years, losing Roth, was a crushing blow.
Today, as the golf world celebrates Cantlay’s remarkable comeback to the top echelons of the game, it is somewhat convenient to try and situate Roth’s death, in the wider context of Cantlay’s life and career. It’s a notion that Cantlay has repeatedly dismissed.
“That (Chris’s demise) would be difficult whether I was playing or not playing, and it would be just as difficult both ways and just as life-changing and just as earth-shattering,” he told PGATour.com after winning the season-ending 2021 FedEx Cup in August this year.
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Here’s what even new converts to the game know about Cantlay: he is, by far, the best putter in the world right now. What some golf fans may not have known before he became the FedEx Cup Champion, is that Cantlay was the top-ranked amateur in the world for 54 consecutive weeks in 2011-12, and the recipient of pretty much every award you can win in that milieu.
That promise began to unravel in 2013 when Cantlay felt a jarring pain in his back while on the range at the Colombia Championship.
Diagnosed with a stress fracture of the back, the young player found himself in the cold, unable to play pain-free—by 2014, his ranking had slipped to 623 in the world.
Two weeks before Roth’s accident, just when it had seemed that his back was well enough to play, Cantlay had a recurrence of pain. When he was advised at least another nine months of rehabilitation, Cantlay had to pull out of the 2016 CareerBuilder Challenge—his first event in over a year. It’s hard to imagine the young man’s frame of mind at that point, and quite impossible post the accident that ensued.
Cantlay’s return to wellness and playing pain-free has been a long and arduous journey. On an aside, there’s a lesson to be learnt from Cantlay’s injury for amateur golfers looking to emulate the ‘x-factor’ in the modern golf swing. The term, which denotes the difference of coil between shoulders and the hips, was exceptionally high—18 degrees—in Cantlay’s old swing. And crucially, that difference came on the downswing which put additional pressure on his lower back.
Today, Cantlay turns his shoulders more on the backswing, and has only a three-degree ‘x-factor’ on the downswing. And we’re talking of an ivy league athlete here. Quick takeaway: don’t ape the pros, or any swing that you do not possess the physical abilities to perform.
Cantlay has spoken about not wanting to connect what happened with Roth and where he is today as a golfer. “The golf part and the Chris part seem like two completely separate deals…Just something like that changes your life and puts you on a different trajectory than you ever thought you’d get on. And it definitely changes your perspective on things,” Cantlay told PGATour.com.
And that’s why things like losing in playoffs (he’s lost a couple this year) or losing an event on the final hole (as it happened at the Shriner’s) aren’t life-changing events for Cantlay. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles in golf sometimes. No big deal.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game