Jamie Mulligan’s lunch at Virginia Country Club is often interrupted by two nagging questions.
How’s he doing?
When are we going to see him again?
“But that should happen,” Mulligan said recently. “If they forgot about you completely, that wouldn’t be a good thing. And there’s no way anybody in the golf world could have watched Patrick Cantlay from age 18-20 and said, ‘That’s not very impressive.’ You can’t fake the scores. You can’t fake the success.”
The questions will mercifully stop this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where Cantlay, the former No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, returns to competition after more than three years of physical and personal setbacks.
Eight PGA Tour events this season have been won by players who are 26 or younger, but it’s easy to forget that Cantlay was once the brightest star among them.
As a freshman at UCLA, he swept the Haskins and Nicklaus awards as the best college player in the country. In the summer of 2011, he gained attention by tying for 21st at the U.S. Open, then shot 60, the lowest score ever by an amateur, at the Travelers Championship. Paul Goydos, another Mulligan student, was asked that day whether Cantlay should stay in school all four years and get his degree. “Heck, I hope he gets his master’s,” Goydos quipped.
Stamping himself as golf’s next great prospect, Cantlay finished in the top 25 in his first four Tour starts and reached the finals of the U.S. Amateur. To some surprise, he stayed in school for another year, but he eventually turned pro in June 2012, as the top-ranked amateur in the world for a record 55 weeks.
Fast-tracked for success, Cantlay instead was derailed less than a year later. Warming up on the range before his second round at Colonial, he swung and “felt like somebody stuck a knife in my back.” Hoping the pain would subside, he played seven holes before withdrawing. Only weeks later was he diagnosed with a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae.
Cantlay shut it down for three months, and his position atop the Web.com Tour money list plummeted. Compelled to return that fall in order to secure his card, he missed two consecutive cuts before gutting out a runner-up finish in the first season-ending playoff event. He didn’t play again for seven months.
Even after that extended layoff, his back still wasn’t right. He missed three cuts and never finished better than 23rd in six starts in 2014. The only time he has played competitively since then was a sectional qualifier for the Chambers Bay Open.
“I felt good coming back,” he said, “but I woke up one day and it just felt weird. I just didn’t feel right. Even when that happened I wasn’t overly concerned. I thought it’d go back to normal and it just didn’t.”
By January 2016, Cantlay thought he’d finally turned the corner. He ramped up to play the PGA Tour’s CareerBuilder Challenge in the California desert, but the week before the event his back throbbed and pain shot down his legs. With a busy pro-am schedule the week of the event, he declined the sponsor exemption. Worse, he was advised to sit out at least another 10 months. No golf.
“Hearing that after being out for so long,” Cantlay said, “that you’re not going to be able to practice when I was so close to being able to come back, was really low. It was demoralizing."
And it only got worse.
Chris Roth (L) and Patrick Cantlay at the 2012 Masters Tournament (Getty Images)
Four weeks later, Cantlay was barhopping in Newport Beach with his caddie, Chris Roth, when Roth was struck while crossing an intersection. Less than 10 feet from the hit-and-run accident, Cantlay rushed over to his friend and called 911. “By the time I got to him,” he said, “there was nothing I could do.” Roth was transported to a local hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. He was 24.
“You don’t know how you’re going to react in that situation,” Cantlay said. “I’m standing there talking to the police officer and he says, ‘Do you want a towel or something to wipe yourself off?’ I was completely covered in blood. I didn’t realize it. Your importance level, your awareness of what is usually a big deal, was not a big deal to me. And I felt like that for months after.”
“Your best friend is not supposed to die when you’re 23,” Mulligan said, “and he’s not supposed to die in your arms, either.”
Cantlay eulogized Roth at the service. They’d been close friends and teammates at Servite High in Anaheim. Roth started looping for Cantlay during his sophomore year of high school and was on the bag for many of his amateur qualifiers. He even moved with Cantlay to Florida for a year.
“I’m already at the lowest point I could be, I feel so far away from where my goals are, and then that happened,” Cantlay said. “For a while, it just made me feel like nothing was important. Nothing made me sad. Nothing made me happy. I’m sure I was just in depression and grieving mode. I was just dull.
“There are not a lot of words that really describe how upsetting it is. It still haunts me when I think about it. It’s always going to be there. I’m never going to feel better. Nothing is ever going to make me feel OK about what happened. Time just heals it, or numbs it a little bit.”
The golf course was usually Cantlay’s refuge, but now his immediate playing future was uncertain. He visited doctors in Denver and New York and Los Angeles. He even flew to Germany, to undergo the Regenokine procedure made famous by Kobe Bryant. Nothing worked. They were no closer to a solution.
Back home in Long Beach, Cantlay tried to keep his mind occupied. But it was uncomfortable to sleep. He couldn’t do any activity that put stress on his body, which meant no bowling or 1-on-1 hoops with friends. Sometimes it was easier to lie on the floor than the couch, and he bided his time reading and binge-watching his favorite TV shows. Other than a one-hour physical therapy appointment each day, he said, “there wasn’t much reason to get up in the morning.”
“It got to the point where I wouldn’t even talk about the golf swing and how I was feeling because no one could really help,” he said. “There was nothing they could do. It was frustrating when I’d see somebody and they’d say, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ There’s one thing that you want to do in your life, and you can’t do it. There’s no consoling that.”
His desire to play never waned, but Cantlay began to ponder life after golf. He considered re-enrolling at UCLA to finish his degree. Maybe he’d even get his master’s, like Goydos once joked. “You have that conversation with yourself,” he said.
But after Roth’s death, the healing proved to be as much emotional as physical.
“All your friends want to get together every weekend, just to maybe forget about it,” Cantlay said. “But after a while, that kind of goes away, and it goes back to normal, to real life. Time is really the only thing that makes it a little better. It’s not that when I think about it, it makes me less upset or less life-changing, because it doesn’t.
“But when I think about it, it’s amazing how different my life is now and how I think about my life trajectory, just by that one event. In a minute it can all change.”
The introverted Cantlay said he’s now even more selective of the people in his life. He cherishes his friends who are smart and fun, confident and driven. “My circle is very small,” he said, “so to lose someone out of that circle is extremely life-altering.”
One consistent member of that circle is Mulligan, with whom he has worked since age 7. Mulligan could relate to Cantlay’s pain, losing two family members at a young age. “But Patrick is pretty good at figuring things out by himself,” Mulligan said. “He’s a wise soul.”
Getting Cantlay off the disabled list – and answering those two nagging questions – was a tedious process, and his team implemented a new warmup, routine and training regimen. Fortunately, there was no rush to return, as Cantlay’s status, sponsors and support allowed him to recover on his own terms, at his own pace.
“I did like the idea of him not playing golf because he felt like he had to play golf,” Mulligan said. “I’ve never seen anybody not ready to play do well.”
Now 24, Cantlay remains one of the game’s most intriguing young players, if only because of his limited exposure. Since turning pro in 2012, he has made just 33 starts – or a little more than a full season – on the PGA and Web.com tours. To keep his card, he must earn 389 FedEx Cup points, or $624,746, in 10 events.
“At the end of the day, this might be a pretty good deal,” Mulligan said. “Being fresh is the biggest thing in the sport. Nobody is winning when you’re not fresh.”
Mulligan said Cantlay’s post-injury swing is “pretty similar,” but subtle tweaks made him “more orthodox” and were easier on his body. The changes won’t be noticeable to the untrained eye, but the new action works fine – last month, Cantlay shot a course-record 63 at The Vintage Club in Palm Springs.
“I never felt like my golf has left me,” he said.
Of course, there’s a massive difference between playing recreationally and competitively, but even the prospect of a return has brightened Cantlay’s spirits after the lowest point of his life.
“It’s funny,” he said, “how it impacts my mood positively after being idle for so long.”