PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The game’s superstars, the Dustins and the Rorys and the Jordans, are used to the post-round routine. A stop with a TV network here, a chat with a radio station there, about five interviews in all, and they try to muster the most enthusiastic reply they can to the same question they just heard a moment ago.
So, forgive Patrick Cantlay. It’s been a while.
He’s playing in only his second event in the past 28 months, and it’s all happening so quickly.
The low rounds.
The surging confidence.
And, yes, now the tiresome media obligations, which are no simple task for a kid with a bad back.
After a second consecutive 66 Saturday put him four shots behind at the Valspar Championship, Cantlay put his hands on his hips, swayed and kicked up his knees to stay loose. By the end of the 15-minute session, he was worn out, ready to hightail it to the clubhouse for physical therapy.
“Just out of season is all,” he said with a smile.
To everyone besides Cantlay, 24, and his team, it’s a surprise that the former amateur star is in the final group here at Innisbrook, so soon after his lengthy layoff. He hasn’t been right since the summer of 2013, when he sustained a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae while warming up on the range at an event. In the months and years that followed, he searched all over the world, literally, for a solution, only to come up empty.
His balky back was only part of the problem. In February 2016, just weeks after being told that he’d need to shelve the clubs for the next nine months to let his back calm down, he watched as his best friend and caddie, Chris Roth, was struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident.
With so much turmoil in his professional and personal life, Cantlay considered giving up the game and re-enrolling at UCLA. Ultimately, he forged ahead, slowly, with the help of his longtime swing coach Jamie Mulligan. The healing process is ongoing.
“I try and separate the two, the injury and the personal stuff,” Cantlay said. “The back injury is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. But then my best friend dying far outweighs that. I don’t intertwine the two.
“I’ve worked really hard to get back to where I am, and I’ve done a lot of good work. I’m happy to be here.”
Playing on a major medical extension, Cantlay has nine events to earn either 381 FedEx Cup points or $606,849 to keep his card. (A solo second here would satisfy that, after a T-48 at Pebble Beach). He hasn’t played in a month, by design, to ensure that he gives himself the best opportunity to succeed. He’s not even sure where he’ll play next.
“I did like the idea of him not playing golf because he felt like he had to play golf,” Mulligan said recently. “He could do it more on his own terms. I’ve never seen anybody not ready to play do well.”
But this well, after accumulating so much competitive rust?
Across the board, by any measure, he has been stellar – sixth in driving, fifth in approach shots, 22nd in putting. On the tricky Copperhead course, he has made only one bogey over his last 36 holes.
The only player ahead of him on the leaderboard is Canadian Adam Hadwin, who, like Cantlay, is looking for his first Tour victory on Sunday.
“It’s just shooting numbers,” Cantlay said. “It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a numbers game. My game has been good. I’ve been playing good, so it doesn’t really surprise me.”
His back requires constant maintenance. His pre-round routine takes about three hours – “It gives me a good frame of mind” – and his trainer is on-site to help with some of the mobility exercises afterward.
That part is different from when he was last on Tour. So is his perspective.
In 2012, he was the can’t-miss prospect, the world No. 1 amateur, the NCAA player of the year, the low am at the U.S. Open, the fresh-faced, rising college sophomore who shot 60 in a Tour event.
“Same guy,” he said, “but a few more highs and lows. At the time, things were rolling so good all the time. I didn’t think they could go any other way. But life hit me in the face pretty quick.”
And now, one month into his inspiring comeback, he’s in position to strike back.