Patrick Cantlay has made his comeback to professional golf in 2017, trying to retain his PGA Tour playing privileges through a major medical exemption. After finishing tied for 48th place in his return at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Cantlay finds himself alone in second place heading into the final round of the 2017 Valspar Championship. He trails leader Adam Hadwin by four shots, but Cantlay plays alongside the Canadian in the final pairing on Sunday.
Cantlay’s road back to simply playing high-level competitive golf again is extraordinary — beginning as an effort to overcome a mysterious-at-times back injury and including a personal tragedy.
Cantlay was a stud in college at UCLA, winning the Nicklaus and Haskins awards as the best collegiate male golfer. He shot a record 60 as an amateur in the Travelers Championship in 2011 en route to the 36-hole lead. He turned pro with much fanfare in June 2012 after more than a year atop the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2013, when, that May at Colonial, he had to withdraw with a back injury that turned out to be a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae. He didn’t play again until the Web.com Tour Finals that summer, when he managed a solo second in the Hotel Fitness Championship to earn his PGA Tour card — somewhat miraculous unto itself.
Cantlay couldn’t take advantage of having his card. He didn’t play again until May 2014, getting in just five starts that season. He made two cuts, including a T-23 at Greenbrier. That fall, he made the cut in his one start of the 2014-15 season in Mexico, finishing 76th. The back wasn’t getting better, not even with deliberate, elongated periods of rest. He didn’t play competitively in 2015 or 2016, save for an effort to qualify for the ’15 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Cantlay’s doctors told him to lay off golf altogether, unable to tell him for how long and if that rest would even mean his back would repair itself to the point he could play again.
While he was waiting for his back to heal, Cantlay experienced a terrible personal tragedy when he saw his best friend and caddie Chris Roth get struck by a car in a hit-and-run incident while out one night. Roth was just paces ahead when Cantlay saw him get hit. Roth died later that night.
Through all of the doubt and the sadness, Cantlay put in the hard work to prepare for his return, and he felt ready for this.
“(I’m the) same guy,” Cantlay said. “A few more lows, highs and lows. Gave me a little different perspective. At the time things were rolling so good all the time. I guess I didn’t think they could go any other way. But life hit me in the face pretty quick.”
Sunday at the Valspar matters a lot. He is on the second of nine total PGA Tour starts in his major medical exemption. He must earn 381 FedEx Cup points or $606,849 to retain his status. A solo second or better at Innisbrook would get him there. A win gets him to the Masters, The Players, the PGA Championship and assurance of PGA Tour status through the 2018-19 season.
Cantlay, the stoic type on the course, is hoping to maintain the same quiet confidence and stick to his game plan that got him here.
“Try not to have too many expectations,” he said Saturday after shooting 5-under 66. “Trying to stick to my program and hit a lot of fairways and greens. But just trying to do my deal and not worry about anything else, because I can’t control everything.”