It was Tuesday morning inside the East Lake clubhouse when Patrick Cantlay sat down next to Justin Thomas for breakfast. Cantlay is a year older, and the two have known each other since their amateur days. This was the first time for Cantlay at East Lake, though.
“Same old Patrick,” said Thomas, who used to try to emulate Cantlay’s putting stroke when the two were younger. “He was doing a crossword. I’m not on the same intelligence level as him. He’s an unbelievably smart dude.”
The two had flown together, along with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, from last week’s BMW Championship outside Chicago to this week’s Tour Championship, where the top-30 in the FedEx Cup standings are gathered for the US PGA Tour’s season finale. After breakfast, Cantlay and Thomas played nine holes together.
That Thomas, Spieth and Fowler are in the field is hardly a surprise. Between them, they have nine victories this season, including two Majors, with Thomas leading the way with five wins. That Cantlay, who made just a dozen starts this year, is teeing it up is nothing short of miraculous.
Cantlay’s journey has been well-documented but bears repeating. As an amateur in 2011, he shot a course-record 60 in the Travellers Championship and led the event through 36 holes. A year later, the college player of year at UCLA turned pro after having spent a record 55 weeks as the world’s top-ranked amateur, and in 2013 he got his first professional victory on the Web.com Tour. The steady career rise, however, was stunted when a back injury sidelined him for most of the next three years. Then, in February 2016, Cantlay was walking across an intersection on a night out in Newport Beach, California, a few steps behind his best friend and caddie Chris Roth when Roth was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Roth was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Eventually, Cantlay’s back got better and so did his mind. He entered this season on a major medical extension, and jumped off to a great start by nearly winning in Tampa before finishing second. A month later in Hilton Head, he tied for third and didn’t miss a cut on his way to becoming one of just two rookies to make it to East Lake thanks after rolling in an 11-foot birdie putt on the final hole at the BMW Championship at Conway Farms last week.
Following in the gallery were Roth’s parents, who might join him this week, too.
“It feels really good,” Cantlay said of qualifying for the Tour Championship, which among other perks gets him into all four Majors in 2018 as well as into most World Golf Championships and the Players Championship. “There was a time when just finishing a tour event was one of the goals. I’ve come a long way in the past couple years, year, six months, three months.
“As I started progressing and playing well and feeling comfortable and feeling like my game is good enough, now every time I tee it up I feel like I have a chance to win. I haven’t felt that way since before I was hurt.”
As for his relationship with Roth’s parents and the support they’ve provided a long the way? “I don’t know if I have the right words,” Cantlay said after a long pause. “But it feels really good to have the support from such quality people.”