Unless you are one of the few people who follow the U.S. college game, or you are a member of the tight knit Long Beach California golf community, chances are that you’ve never heard of Patrick Cantlay. But read on. This is likely to be a name you are going to hear frequently, for many years to come.
Since last summer’s U.S. Amateur, where he lost in the quarterfinals, Cantlay has been on a meteoric rise to the top of the amateur game. He is currently the No. 1 ranked college golfer in America, and he is the No. 2 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Not bad for a kid who left high school behind just nine months ago.
This does not come as a surprise to those close to Cantlay, who first broke 70 at age 12. The 5-10, 160 pound golfer was a first-team AJGA All American in 2008 and 2009, posting five top-10s in nine events in 2009. The southern California native decided to stay close to home and play his college golf at UCLA, even though his parents are both USC grads.
His U.S. Amateur performance was hardly a fluke, considering that he finished second in the stroke-play qualifying at 5-under par. He was one of the few “kids” who was not intimidated by the unusual Chambers Bay layout. Instead, he took the challenge and had a great week.
Playing off that momentum, Cantlay quickly established himself as a force in the college game. He posted his first collegiate win in just his third event, and has gone on to add two more victories while leading the very young and talented UCLA team to the No. 2 spot in the Nike/Golf Coaches rankings. He has six top-10 finishes, posted 13 rounds under par, and has had 19 of his 21 rounds count toward the team score.
Most freshmen struggle in the transition to the college game, and to college in general. There are exceptions, to be sure, such as Rickie Fowler and Jamie Lovemark. But neither won three times in their freshman year. “I cannot remember the last time a freshman made this kind of impact,” said Titleist’s Jim Ahern, as close an observer of the college game as there is.
While in high school, where he carded a 3.8 grade average, Cantlay worked in homeless shelters and for Habitat for Humanity. Described by all as a grounded, affable young man with a great sense of humor, Cantlay has professed his intention to remain at UCLA for four years.
Since he was 6 years old, Cantlay has been working with iconoclastic West Coast golf pro and instructor Jamie Mulligan, who also serves as chief operating officer of Virginia Country Club in Long Beach. Mulligan is not a swing coach; he teaches golfers how to play. Cantlay is a third generation Mulligan student, following – in the footsteps of the John Cook/Paul Goydos era and then the John Malinger/Peter Tomasulo/John Merrick crew: “The VCC Boys” as they are known around the club. In a real sense, Cantlay has become their little brother, as they all play together a lot and push each other constantly. He has had a wonderful inside-the-ropes look at golf at the highest level.
More than anything, according to Mulligan, Cantlay has “the scoring gene. Some have it, some don’t. He definitely has it. He has a great way of seeing and working his way around the golf course. He economizes his golf very well, and he has that rare ability to turn 75 into 71, to turn 69 into 65.”
Mulligan said that Cantlay wants to become “macro better … better at everything. A better golfer, a better student, a better friend.” Asked what trait most stands out, Mulligan quickly points out his poise. “He is mature beyond his years. He is self-confident without being cocky.”
Cantlay will soon begin the quest to become just the ninth freshman to win the NCAA Championship. He has run away with the Freshman of the Year award and has a clear shot at claiming that rarest of freshman achievements – national Player of the Year. Only Fowler has won the prestigious Ben Hogan award as a freshman, given annually to the college golf’s best player.
Cantlay was selected to be a part of the Walker Cup practice squad that gathered in Florida in January. He will play the traditional big-time summer amateur schedule after the NCAAs, and with a decent performance, he appears to be a lock for the team that captain Jim Holtgrieve will take to Scotland next fall.
This week, he will no doubt be watching to see how the amateurs fare at The Masters. My guess is that in the not-too-distant future he will check into the Crow’s Nest, the fabled dorm room where the amateurs stay during Masters week. He’s that good.