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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Patrick Cantlay making the right call

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

Shortly after beating Kansas in April for the NCAA men's basketball championship, the starting five of the victorious Kentucky Wildcats squad announced they would enter the NBA draft. The three freshmen and two sophomores are all expected to be selected.

Patrick Cantlay
In the second round of the 2011 Travelers Championship, Patrick Cantlay carded a 60, which is the lowest score ever recorded by an amateur in a PGA Tour event.

Anthony Davis, the Wildcats' 19-year-old, 6-foot-10 freshman power forward, is the consensus top overall pick in the draft. If Davis does go No. 1 to the New Orleans Hornets, he'll earn around $5 million in the first year of his rookie contract.

Patrick Cantlay, a 20-year-old sophomore at UCLA, is also leaving school early -- to pursue a career on the PGA Tour. On Tuesday, the 2011 U.S. Amateur runner-up announced he would play this week's Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., as a pro.

In 2011, Cantlay made the cut in all five of his PGA Tour starts. His best finish was a tie for ninth at the RBC Canadian Open, but his year is best remembered for the course-record 60 he shot in the second round at the Travelers, where he tied for 24th.

That 60 is the lowest score ever for an amateur in a PGA Tour event. This year, he's made the cut in both the Masters and the U.S. Open.

"For me, it was a combination of being comfortable with being a professional and taking it to the next level and timing," Cantlay said about his decision to turn pro. "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."

Yet his immediate future on the PGA Tour is less certain than those of Davis and his Kentucky teammates in the NBA. The outline of the former No. 1-ranked amateur's plan are in place. The Los Alamitos, Calif., native has hired a high-powered agent in Mark Steinberg, whose most famous client is Tiger Woods. Cash from endorsements will give him a modicum of financial security, and he will play the next two weeks after Hartford on sponsors' exemptions.

But if he doesn't play well the rest of the year and he can't get through Q-school in the fall, he won't have a place on the PGA Tour.

Meanwhile, the Hornets will give Davis time to develop his offensive skills to complement his already fierce presence as a defender and rebounder. Unlike Cantlay, he doesn't have great pressure from Day 1 to perform well. Regardless of his rebound total, the Hornets will make him a millionaire.

The life of a pro golfer is a tough business with inherent risks that, along with a few other individual games, such as tennis, make it unique in professional sports. Cantlay would have faced the same perilous situation if he had turned pro after another couple of years at UCLA. And forestalling injury, the Kentucky starting five could have won a few more titles before all jumping to the NBA. But timing is everything. Davis and his teammates are going to cash out big, now.

By turning pro this summer, Cantlay can try to make enough money so that he can join a select few players, including Woods and Justin Leonard, who got their PGA Tour cards without having to go to Q-school. (Bud Cauley accomplished the feat just last year.) Securing a job for 2013 is the primary objective for Cantlay, beginning this week. But perhaps a more important motive for him turning pro now are the recent changes the PGA Tour made to how players will get tour cards.

This is the last year that players will be able to earn a PGA Tour card out of Q-school. Beginning next fall, Q-school graduates will only earn the right to play on the Nationwide Tour. But on Tuesday, Cantlay deflected the notion that the changes influenced his decision.

"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," he said. "So I think Q-school still allows really good players to get out there fast."

Cantlay is right. Still, he doesn't want to start his career on the Nationwide Tour. Davis and his Kentucky teammates didn't turn pro to play in the NBA's development league. One or two of them could turn out to be a bust and end up in Europe or the D-League, but for now, they will likely be on NBA rosters.

There are worse places in professional golf than the Nationwide Tour. Ask Michael Thompson, who is in the field this week after finishing in a tie for second at the U.S. Open. Before getting his tour card through Q-school in 2010, he was a star on the Hooters Tour. Ask John Peterson, who didn't have any status on any tour before getting a tie for fourth at the Olympic Club.

Cantlay is destined for a long career on the PGA Tour, but if he has to make a few detours along the way to the Nationwide Tour or to Europe, it will only help his game down the line. But like the future NBA stars from Kentucky, he will now experience his growing pains as a pro, treating his craft like a full-time job without juggling it with the demands of school.

Over the next decade, Cantlay's fiercest rivals will be other young players of his generation such as Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa and Matteo Manassero. These players are already among the elite in the game.

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

Cantlay takes a healthy risk by leaving school early, and these next couple of weeks will be very important for him as he tries to plant some roots on the PGA Tour. He will play the AT&T National at Congressional next week, during the NBA draft.

Cantlay might not immediately gain the riches and comforts of those Kentucky five, but with his very mature game, it won't be long before he's one of golf's top players.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.