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 Web.com 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.