Cantlay making return from injury at Byron Nelson

By Jason SobelMay 14, 2014, 12:50 pm

IRVING, Texas – Before Jordan Spieth took the golf world by storm, before Patrick Reed won three times, before Harris English and Russell Henley and Seung-yul Noh were all claiming trophies in their early-20s, Patrick Cantlay was the one to watch.

Well, one of the ones, at least.

This week, he will make his first start since last September in a return from injury, teeing it up in the field at the Byron Nelson Championship.

“Feels good,” Cantlay, 22, said after a Tuesday practice round. “Back to normal.”

For those who don’t remember, Cantlay’s normal is pretty special.

Let’s review: He was the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur golfer for more than a year; he won the Haskins, Nicklaus and Mickelson awards as a freshman at UCLA; he finished top-25 in his first four PGA Tour starts as an amateur; he was low am at both the U.S. Open and Masters; and he shot a 60 – yes, a 60! – at the Travelers Championship.

And all of that doesn’t even include what may be the greatest achievement of his career.

Last year, while warming up on the range at Colonial, he felt a pain in his back. The diagnosis was a stress fracture in his L5-S1 vertebrae. There is no surgery involved for such an injury; the only treatment is rest.

But Cantlay had a PGA Tour card to claim.

He returned three months later to play in the final two events of the Tour regular season, but missed the cut in each one. Still hurting and facing the prospect of another year on the developmental circuit, he competed in the first of four final series events, the Hotel Fitness Championship, where he finished in solo second place, earned his PGA Tour playing privileges for this season and – perhaps most importantly – afforded himself the necessary time to rest and recover before competing again with the injury.

“I was really proud of the way I played in the last event in Indiana,” he explained. “I was hurt and kind of bummed out, but I got my card in that one tournament. I don’t know if that’s my biggest accomplishment, but it’s definitely my most satisfying. Even though I finished in second place and it sucked to lose, it was good considering I was hurt and didn’t feel my best.”

In the time since he’s been away, the game’s most elite level has been overflowing with young, fearless players on the cusp of superstardom.

It could be enough to discourage a fellow up-and-comer like Cantlay, but he’s viewed it all with a glass half-full.

“It just shows that there’s a lot of young guys who are capable of playing well and winning and having success,” he said. “Before I was hurt, I was playing with them all the time, so if anything it makes me feel better and gives me more confidence going forward. All of those guys are my peers and they’re having success, so that’s great to see.”

That doesn’t mean the last 51 weeks haven’t been disheartening.

Cantlay maintained that the injury only hurt him when hitting golf balls, which served as a Catch-22: He felt fine doing everyday activities, but the one thing he passionately wanted to do was the only thing that he couldn’t.

“It was frustrating,” he insisted. “Every time I would get back, the doctor would tell me six or eight more weeks and we’ll be able to try. So it was a little bit frustrating, but I’m glad to be on the other end of it.”

Jamie Mulligan, his instructor since he was 7 years old, stopped short of calling it frustrating.

“That word is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “He might have been frustrated, but it’s a part of life. If we would have been able to prevent it, we would have. But I don’t get frustrated. If I got frustrated, I’d be doing the wrong thing.”

Mulligan understands that the 22-year-old still has time on his side.

“We’re trying to look at this thing as macro as we can,” he continued. “We don’t want him to be a good player for a little amount of time. We want him to be a great player for a long time.”

Following his tournament here in Texas, Cantlay plans to move to Jupiter, Fla., next week, the first time he’ll be away from his native California. As Mulligan knows, it’s all part of growing up – and every young player has to do that at some point.

Cantlay has seen many of his peers grow into the role of budding superstar in the past year or two. He was once on that track. Now that he’s healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t once again join them in that pursuit.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.