Patrick Cantlay: Looking For Change

This week the Tour moves on to the Travelers Championship at the TPC River Highlands in Hartford, Connecticut, and Patrick Cantlay is turning pro. Remember him? He was the young UCLA freshman who got a sponsor’s invitation to play at last year’s Travelers…and shot a 60, the lowest round ever by an amateur in a PGA Tour event.

The week before, he qualified to get into the U.S. Open at Congressional, the one where Rory McIlroy snuffed everybody by eight strokes. But Cantlay ended up in all the trophy presentation pictures because he finished T21 and was low amateur.

The week after the Travelers, he went to the AT&T National at its temporary venue at Aronimink, finished T20 and was low amateur again. A month or so later, he shot 68, 69 on the weekend to finish T9 in the Canadian Open.

And this year he finished T47 at the Masters and T41 at last week’s U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

So pretty damn good. And then some. That 60 at Hartford was otherworldly. He was a college freshman.

But with all of that experience, with all of his extraordinary amateur victories and teams and awards, there wasn’t much of an incentive to finish school:

For me it was a combination of being comfortable with being a professional and taking it to the next level and timing. I think this timing makes sense for me, being able to start somewhere where I’m comfortable and I have good memories. And I feel ready and comfortable with being a pro and trying to be as good as I can be.

And he’s pretty confident that he’s a better player now:

I think I have a lot more experience and I know my own game and limitations even better than I did last year.

You know, I’ve played — not a lot, but I’ve played five or six Tour events, I think, and any time you can play in a Tour event, especially the three majors that I’ve played, I think you learn a lot about your game and what it takes, and I feel comfortable playing in that type of environment.

There is a lot of buzz in the amateur ranks about how this is the last year for Q-School as we know it. Next year we go to the new system of a three-tournament playoff format whose top 50 from the field of 150 would earn….Nationwide Tour cards, not PGA Tour cards. Bummer. One of the concerns was about how good amateurs like Cantlay could make it to the Show without being waylaid in Triple A for a year. He said this wasn’t an issue in his decision:

Not so much. Like I said, it’s still — I think if you’re good enough to be a pro, you’re going to be able to be a pro pretty quick and it’ll be apparent. So I don’t think the Q-School — I think Q-School still allows really good players to get out there fast.

Besides, growing up in Southern California, he got to play a lot of golf with Tour pros, among them John Mallinger, John Merrick and John Cook:

I think it helped me a lot. More than I know probably. Because growing up in the culture around practicing and playing with Tour pros, you pick up things and, you know, how they practice, how they look at a golf course without even really — you know, before I got to a Tour event I knew how a Tour pro played. So I wasn’t in shock by how they talked or how they acted. So I think that was huge for me and I got a lot of advice from them and I think I owe a lot to those guys for bringing me up in that culture.

But, you know, there will be one big change when he tees it up Thursday:

I mean when you tee it up at the beginning of the week as an amateur, you don’t feel like you’re losing anything, you know. I got to a hole at the U. S. Open, my caddie turns to me and goes, “why not hit driver. You’re an amateur. It’s not like you’re going to lose anything.” (Laughs).

And that, dear readers, is where the rubber meets the road. Last year if he missed a cut, it was back to the UCLA dorm room. This year if he misses a cut, it’s down the road to the next tournament and hanging around all week waiting for it to start. As well as Cantlay is prepared for this, it will definitely be different.

This is not the biggest story at the Travelers this week, but from a mastery point of view, it’s the most compelling one to me. While Cantlay is looking for change for the better, he has to be careful to not let the new pressures he’ll be under give him, instead, change for the worse.

There is no fallback. His amateur status is gone. There is no safety net. Worst case, he doesn’t win enough money by the end of the year to be exempt, he blows up in Q-School and is left rattling around on the mini-Tours looking for occasional sponsor’s exemptions.

Because he’s so well trained, so emotionally disciplined — he’s a lot like Jason Dufner in that sense — he will probably be fine. But while all the glitterati vie for TV time as the tournament unfolds, I’ll be watching for Cantlay to see how he handles this big change.

And I don’t really doubt that he’ll do well, but I’ll still be watching closely just to make sure. He might not be the biggest story, but he’s a great story.

And while you’re at it, keep an eye on Patrick Reed who has successfully Monday qualified for the fourth time this year. You want hard? That’s hard.

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