There will be a lot of talk about a quality comeback from a career-threatening back injury and personal trauma for a former world No. 1 at the 2018 Masters, and Patrick Cantlay’s story warrants a significant share of that conversation.
The former world No. 1 amateur essentially lost roughly four years of his pro career from the summer of 2012 to early 2017 with a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae that forced him to sit out three, seven, 15 and 14 months between aborted returns.
A month into his last layoff in 2016, his world was further shattered when his caddie and best friend, Chris Roth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking 10 feet in front of Cantlay in Newport Beach, Calif.
“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 told GolfChannel.com. “For a while, it just made me feel like nothing was important. ... 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.”
At Pebble Beach in 2017, Cantlay’s mind and body were finally in a place where he could try golf again with a medical exemption to make 10 starts. Now 26, he never considered quitting despite all the physical and emotional hardships.
“There’s not a lot of give up in me,” he said. “I thought maybe there was a chance my back would never feel good enough to play again. But, fortunately, I feel great. I knew if I could get 100 percent healthy, everything else would take care of itself.”
When he finished tied for 48th in his first start in three years at Pebble Beach last year, he climbed to 1,424th in the world. He turned 10 events into a run to the Tour Championship at East Lake, while his November win in Las Vegas moved him into the world’s top 50.
“It felt like someone put the pause button on playing, but I feel like I picked up right where I left off,” said Cantlay, who hasn’t missed a cut since the 2014 Wyndham Championship when he got injured.
“It feels good to be doing what I feel like I was born to do and what I practiced to do for such a long time. The other part is so separate and it was such a heartbreaking deal that I don’t even – it’s not even on the same level as golf.”
Qualifying for the Tour Championship got Cantlay into all the 2018 majors, allowing him the freedom to create a schedule that would limit wear and tear on his back.
“It’s going to be nice being in all the majors and feeling like I can compete with the best players in the world. Getting the chance to do it on a week-in, week-out basis is going to be great,” he said. “Yeah, of course, 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.”
The major opportunity Cantlay is looking the most forward to is returning to Augusta. As the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, Cantlay made his Masters debut in 2012 as the U.S. Amateur runner-up. In a volatile even-par final round, he recovered from a 9-6 combo on Nos. 13 and 14 to play the last four holes in 4-under with an eagle-birdie-birdie run on Nos. 15-17. That rally prevented Hideki Matsuyama from winning consecutive silver cups as low amateur.
“I learned a lot about the golf course and angles to play and places to hit it and not to hit it,” Cantlay said of his first Augusta experience, finishing two strokes behind Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson. “I think that’s really going to benefit me when I come back in the future."