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Cantlay does 'just enough' for first win

Patrick Cantlay during the final round of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
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LAS VEGAS – With the sunlight all but gone and after 90 minutes of PGA Tour pros looking like weekend hackers, Patrick Cantlay finally – mercifully – ended the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open on Sunday.

He made a scrambling par on the second extra hole to defeat Alex Cejka and Whee Kim in a playoff for his first PGA Tour title.

As choppy as the finish was – and make no mistake, it was a gagfest – when that final putt dropped, none of it mattered. Because there was Cantlay, standing victorious, re-asserting his place in this game after three years of injury and what he termed on Sunday night as “heartbreak.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that Cantlay, now 25, was the top-ranked amateur in the world for 55 weeks, as highly touted a prospect as guys named Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

It just “feels like a long time ago,” he said Sunday night, seated next to his new trophy.

When he turned pro in 2012, PGA Tour victories seemed assured for the Nicklaus Award winner out of UCLA. It just took him a lot longer than expected. And when his moment came, it was far from pretty.

“The finish did not happen the way I thought it would,” he admitted, “but it was just enough.”

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After starting the day four behind co-leaders J.J. Spaun and Beau Hossler, Cantlay took the outright lead with a birdie at 13, one of four in a row on Nos. 11-14. To that point, Sunday’s final round had looked nothing like Saturday’s third round, when wind gusts of nearly 40 miles an hour battered the field late in the day.

But one hole later, after a calm start, the wind returned to send those near the top of the leaderboard into a collective nosedive.

“It was really two different days out there,” Cantlay said. “It was really like the first 14 holes, and the last four holes. The first 14 holes were a shootout.”

The last four were anything but. At one point, with absolutely no one wanting to win this golf tournament, the Shriners appeared headed for a five-way playoff. Cantlay, who had reached 11 under par, bogeyed 17 and 18 to post 9 under. Kim, likewise, dropped a shot on the 72nd hole to get into the clubhouse at 9.

Next up, needing birdie to win and par to get into a playoff, Chesson Hadley bogeyed 18 – you may be noticing a theme here – to fall out of contention.

And in the final group, 54-hole leader J.J. Spaun finished double bogey-double bogey to drop from 10 under par to 6 under par.

That left three players to return to the 18th tee: Cantlay, Kim, and Alex Cejka, who had gone off in the morning’s second starting time and fired a 64 to reach 9 under long before it was en vogue.

“It was a little bit, a little bit, a little bit tricky. Hanging out for one and a half hours, it was a long time,” said Cejka, who had been off the course closer to two hours. “I was watching, forced to for a long, long time. And then the wind picked up. I was eating and packing up. I almost put everything in the car. But then the wind kicked up and the guys were making bogeys and doubles.”

And after all three players made – surprise – bogey on the first extra hole, they once again returned to the tee at 18, where Cantlay lost his ball to the right and encountered some tree trouble on the second playoff hole.

At that point, he had two options: chip out, or lace a punch-cut 4-iron from 185 yards that went under one tree and around another. He chose the latter option and ran his ball through the back of the green into a small collection area, 70 feet from the hole.

With Kim out of it and Cejka off the green, Cantlay very nearly holed his putt from the fringe, which burned the left edge. And when Cejka failed to get up and down, Cantlay brushed in his par putt, sending a parade of Shriners onto the putting surface.

It was a coronation long overdue for Cantlay, after back injuries forced him away from competitive golf for three years from 2014 to 2017. And it was during that time away, in 2016, that his best friend and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed crossing an intersection in a hit-and-run accident, with Cantlay standing 10 feet away.

“There were some really low times,” he said.

But Cantlay has persevered. He put his medical extension to good use last season, finishing second at the Valspar Championship and making it all the way to the Tour Championship at East Lake on only 13 starts.

And now, he’s a PGA Tour champion. Patrick Cantlay is back, and he is setting his sights on once again becoming the No. 1 player in the world – this time, as a professional.

“Having won, I hope they pile up,” he said. “I feel like getting your first one can sometimes be the toughest one to get.

“I want to be the best player in the world, and I want to win a bunch of tournaments. I feel like if that’s not what you’re out here for, you shouldn’t be out here.”