Commentary

Patrick Cantlay focused on his game

Updated: April 2, 2012, 10:24 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The 10th hole at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., was not meant to play nice.

Once the 18th green Ken Venturi staggered down to win the 1964 U.S. Open, the hole was reconfigured a few years ago by Rees Jones into a daunting, 218-yard par-3 that former Open champ Graeme McDowell dubbed unfair and Padraig Harrington admitted was worrying him for days.

It is the kind of hole seasoned pros feel good about surviving: downhill, over water, with a short green and bunkers on the back side. Hit it short and your round begins in the water with a double bogey. Play it safe and stay long and you're feeling good to come out with a 3 or 4 if you've got enough touch to keep it on the green.

[+] EnlargePatrick Cantlay
AP Photo/Eric GayAmateur Patrick Cantlay finished 21st at last year's U.S. Open.

It was at this hole that Patrick Cantlay teed off in his first PGA Tour event last summer, at a little thing called the U.S. Open. He was 19 years old and full of swagger after a record-breaking freshman season at UCLA. But at that moment, a little before 1 p.m. on June 16, he was just another golfer trying to get through the 10th without digging himself too big of a hole.

Jamie Mulligan, Cantlay's longtime swing coach who has been working with him since he was 7 and joined the juniors program at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Calif., had no idea what was coming. Cantlay's face was calm. His eyes gave away nothing.

What came next was going to be a surprise for everyone. Mulligan could only trust in everything he'd taught the kid over the years, about golf and life, about what matters and what's just noise. Pressure, nerves, expectations, all of those are things to be embraced, not overcome.

"That 10th hole is 205 yards over water and he needs to hit a 206-yard shot," Mulligan said recently. "Do you know how cool it is to stand there [caddying] for a kid who you've been teaching since he was 7?

"What a great opportunity no matter what he does."

While the gallery held its breath, Cantlay exhaled and did just as Mulligan had trained him to do. He hit the ball just as he wanted. It landed 4 feet from the hole. He tapped in for birdie.

As beginnings go, it was an auspicious one. The kind of start to a career that portends much bigger things and makes people start using words like "destiny."

In Cantlay's case, bigger things happened immediately. He went on to finish 21st at the Open, the best finish of any amateur. Then he topped it the next week with a sublime 60 -- a course record -- at the Travelers Championship. By the end of the summer he was playing some of the best golf in the world, finishing in the top 25 in four straight events before closing out the season with a runner-up finish at the U.S. Amateur in August.

The pressure to forgo the rest of his college career and turn pro was immense. His finish at the U.S. Amateur had earned him starts in the Masters, which begins this week, the U.S. Open in June and the British Open in July. By staying at UCLA, he was leaving hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars on the table.

But Cantlay has always had a way of reading greens way out in front of him, and this one felt a lot like the 10th at Congressional. Strike it a yard short and you're in the water. Hit it long and you're in the bunker. Then, as well as now, the right play seemed to come naturally to him.

Destiny could wait. He had more work to do.

"Hopefully someday I'm the best player in the world. That's what I'm working toward," Cantlay said after one of UCLA's tournaments this spring. "But I'm not really focusing on the future because it doesn't help my golf.

"I'm just staying in the moment. It sounds cliché, but that's really what it is."


To understand why it was such an easy decision for Cantlay to return to UCLA this fall, you must accept the idea that he could have struck the ball on the 10th tee at Congressional just as well and still ended up in the water.

[+] EnlargeCantlay
Harry How/Getty ImagesPart of the process: Patrick Cantlay missed the cut at this year's Northern Trust Open.

A little headwind could've caught the ball in the air and slowed it down. The air could've been heavier or thicker. Any number of things outside of Cantlay's control could have changed the outcome of the shot and the trajectory of his summer.

Looking back on it, you wonder how differently things might have gone for Cantlay if he would've ended up in the water to start off the tournament? Could he have recovered? Would he have shot the 60 the next week? Or finished second at the U.S. Amateur? Would he be teeing off at the Masters this Thursday?

The further you go with the hypotheticals, the more this begins to feel like an existential question: Do you believe a person has a destiny?

"I'm pretty opinionated about everything in life I get to think about," Mulligan said. "I don't know, the jury's kind of out on that one, whether things are meant to be or not."

A couple of years ago Paul Goydos became the fourth PGA golfer to shoot a 59 at the John Deere Open. It's the kind of thing that happens in golf about as often as a pitcher throws a perfect game in baseball. Goydos had the unfortunate timing of doing it on the night LeBron James decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.

Mulligan has coached Goydos for years. Of the five professional golfers Mulligan coaches who call Virginia CC home, he's the hardest for him to explain. "You give him a choice between black and white and he'll say maroon," Mulligan joked.

Late that night he got Goydos on the phone and asked him how it felt.

"We finally talked and [Goydos] said, 'I knew enough early on to get out of the way of it,'" Mulligan remembered. "Is that destiny? I don't know. But I do think you get yourself to a place where you kind of get out of the way of it and let it happen."

It's hard to say if Cantlay is in that place yet. How does anyone know when they are ready? Is it a feeling? A premonition? A cold, rational decision based on performance and evaluation? Or at some point do you simply take a shot?

In the meantime, he'll do as Mulligan has taught him: Focus on the golf. On how it feels. On how he feels. On the process, not the result. The rest is just noise.

"It's about the little white ball, period," Mulligan said. "It's all about the golf. He just wants to be a good person and play really good golf."


You need to know two things about Jamie Mulligan before we continue. Ten years ago he coached anyone who came to the public course in Long Beach he ran and asked for a lesson. Today, he only coaches the six players he wants to.

[+] EnlargePatrick Cantlay
Robert Laberge/Getty Images"Patrick's pretty good at overall golf. He sees what it's supposed to be," Cantlay's swing coach, Jamie Mulligan, says.

Five of those players are on Tour: John Cook, John Merrick, John Mallinger, Peter Tomasulo and Goydos. The sixth is Patrick Cantlay.

Cook is the oldest and most balanced in his life and approach. Goydos paints with maroon. Merrick is "building himself to have the consummate golf game. … He's just very into making sure the pyramid is really solid." Mallinger is the competitor, "the guy you bring in in the fourth quarter to take the last shot." Tomasulo has been injured, but has an X factor that makes other players come up to Mulligan and say, "Holy Cow. He's got some stuff. He's got some Blake Griffin-type stuff."

Cantlay grew up around all of them. He's learned from them. By talking to them and just being around. He has picked up their traits and long since internalized the best of each of them.

But he's also got something else, something hard to explain except to tell another story.

"I played gin with Patrick on a trip this one time and he beat me six hands in a row with my discard," Mulligan said. "With me one card away from gin and he's waiting for my card.

"You can't fake that. That's a bright kid."

How does that translate on the golf course?

"Remember in the movie 'Good Will Hunting' where she asks him, 'How do you see the numbers?' and he's like, 'How did Beethoven or Mozart see the piano?'" Mulligan said.

"Patrick's pretty good at overall golf. He sees what it's supposed to be. I can keep putting water on that talent, but he brought a lot of that to the table."


It is that pedigree that sold UCLA coach Derek Freeman on Cantlay when he was a high school sophomore. His drives weren't as long. His shots weren't as crisp as they needed to be. But there was something about the kid that stood out.

"I could just tell that he was a special player in the fact that he didn't always execute the right shot, but he was always hitting the right shot," Freeman said.

"And I really loved the fact that he was growing up around PGA Tour guys every day. I didn't know when that would show up, but I knew that what he was doing was important. Someday that was going to come out in how he plays golf."

When we walked the front nine at Riviera while Cantlay finished up his first, poor round of golf on tour this February -- he shot a seven-over, 78 on a windy, sun-soaked day in the first round of the Northern Trust Open -- Freeman noticeably stayed behind Cantlay's small gallery.

At several points he even fell a hole or two behind. Mulligan was again caddying for him, but rarely seemed to say much to him even as he struggled.

Link He knows that this game changes every day. It's fickle. It comes and goes. When you're hot you've gotta really do well. When you're not you have to figure out what you need to work on and, you know, play.

-- UCLA coach Derek Freeman

"He's got a lot to learn and he knows that," Freeman said. "He knows that this game changes every day. It's fickle. It comes and goes. When you're hot you've gotta really do well. When you're not you have to figure out what you need to work on and, you know, play."

Or in this case play through it. Analyze, reboot, then move on. It's all process, not a result.

"I just played poorly," Cantlay said of his first round at Riviera. "You play enough rounds and you're going to play poorly some rounds. Conditions were tough and I didn't play great. That's what happens."

The next day Cantlay played better. He shot a 72 (+1) but did not make the cut.


Freeman and Mulligan talk, but it's a relationship that needs little maintenance.

They each found their ways to the places they are now by trusting in what felt right. For Mulligan that meant teaching everyone until he could choose the six players he really wanted to work with. On weekends, or whenever he could get away, he'd drive to tournaments and watch the best golf he could find. For 10 years he went on like that, watching, observing, studying the best golfers in the world until the game slowed down for him.

For Freeman that meant walking away from a six-figure job as a financial analyst because it just didn't feel right, and because he missed golf after having to retire from a professional career that ended when he broke a rib on the Canadian Tour.

"It just wasn't my passion," he said.

So instead of managing hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, he started volunteering as an assistant golf coach at Oklahoma City College. He was 30, recently married and had no plan other than to follow this tug toward coaching and back to golf.

A decade later he's the head coach at UCLA with a national championship under his belt, the world's No. 1 amateur on his team and a decision to make about going to the Masters this week.

"I'd love to go. I want to go," Freeman said. "But I've also got nine other guys at home that I've got to make better. I want to work 'em hard, I want them to figure how to get to the Masters.

"I think your role is different with every player. My role with Patrick is just to continue to allow him to develop and allow him to become the very best, not try to impose what I think he needs to be doing at all times. To me it's easy to be this way. It's very natural."


I ask Mulligan what he will say to Cantlay when he tees off at Augusta this week and immediately regret it. We've been talking for an hour and I should know better. I should know him better. This is a man who has never once asked one of his golfers what he shot or whether he won a match, only how it felt and whether they played well.

But sometimes a wrong turn can lead to a good place. Mulligan indulges the question.

"I don't know, my mind would never work like that," he said. "You never know whether they're going to be up or down. Or what they'll look like when they're in warm-ups.

"It just depends on the situation, what their eyes look like."

Will he look like he did right before teeing off on the 10th at Congressional last June? Will his eyes reveal anything? Will his face look differently after all he has done? Is this the place where they all just get out of the way and let whatever is going to happen, happen? Or is there work still to be done?

"He's not scared to play well," Freeman said. "He's going there to play well, not just to enjoy it."

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