Patrick Cantlay: ‘Team USA rookies won’t be scared at the Ryder Cup’

Exclusive interview: The PGA Tour player of the year heads into his first Ryder Cup full of confidence after defeating Bryson DeChambeau in a riveting playoff before clinching the Tour Championship

Tom Kershaw
Tuesday 21 September 2021 07:26
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“It was like a theatre, it felt like the fans were right on top of you,” Patrick Cantlay says, reflecting on the riveting chaos on the 18th green at Caves Valley Golf Club. Needing a birdie to extend the tournament into sudden death, with the crowd’s bated breath like lead in his shoes, he shuffled over the snaking 22ft putt that amounted to the most important shot of his career. Statistically, what followed should have been implausible, a feat of brazen impudence in the face of immense pressure. Instead, Cantlay’s ball gathered pace with utter certainty, like a bullet fired in cold blood, and left the raucous gallery in Maryland gaped in shock and awe.

Cantlay’s battle with Bryson DeChambeau – his teammate at this week’s Ryder Cup – was still far from won, their playoff descending into a momentous six-part drama of its own deep into twilight, but that putt was the spark to the fireworks that followed: winning the Tour Championship the next week, accruing over $15m in prize money, and being named the PGA Tour’s player of the season. But even knowing all that, the softly spoken Californian expects the febrile atmosphere of his first tee shot at Whistling Straits to be unlike anything he’s ever experienced before. “The fans at the BMW were the wildest I’ve seen since Covid. It felt like they were on my side and to pull off those shots, it was amazing, it made it all the more satisfying,” he says. “But from everything I’ve been told, the Ryder Cup is completely different. I’m expecting a much bigger stage and more excitement than I’ve ever felt before playing golf.”

After Jon Rahm’s missed cut last week, Cantlay can reasonably claim to be the best player in the world on current form. He is not necessarily the magnet of attention in such a star-studded US team, but is one of its steeliest characters, a rookie in name but hardly by nature. “We’ve got six rookies on the team, but not in the traditional sense,” he says of the youngest US line-up in the tournament's history. “They’re very accomplished. Just look at Collin [Morikawa], he’s already won two majors but hasn’t played in a Ryder Cup, I doubt that’s happened often before. We won’t be scared.

“We have a lot of unbridled enthusiasm,” he adds, in reference to the burdensome history that has afflicted so many US teams that should, at least on paper, have beaten Europe handily. “We’ll embrace the moment and what the tournament is about.”

That is the new attitude the US are attempting to preach, even if DeChambeau’s enigma and Brooks Koepka’s indifference have opened old wounds. “It’s such a rare thing to play team golf,” Cantlay says. “Being able to turn around and see I’ve got 11 guys I usually compete against is really cool.” As far as his own approach, though, he insists nothing will change. “Making too much out of big events is a trap some of us can fall into. I need to stick to the game plan I know works.

“With success, a lot of the time, people view it from afar and think, ‘oh, you’re suddenly successful, you’ve finally done the right thing’. I don’t really view it that way. I think it’s a journey and what I did earlier this year, the things I was working on, made it possible for me to be able to win the golf tournaments at the end. It’s a lot of validation but it’s a process. It’s not like I was playing out of my body those two weeks. It was just the culmination of lots of hard work and viewing it that way makes it easier to repeat – hopefully, at the Ryder Cup.”

The rewards of that work ethic are plain to see in the trajectory of Cantlay’s career, winning six times on the PGA Tour in the space of four years. At surface level, the success can appear a little homogenous. A prodigy born in a talent-rich area of Los Angeles, who became the world’s standout junior and is now fulfilling that long foretold potential. But beneath that, underpinning his rise, have been hollowing and heart-wrenching intervals that entirely altered his perspective. Above all was the tragic passing of Cantlay’s close friend and caddie, Chris Roth, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident while the pair were out for drinks together in Orange County in 2016. It’s a sense of grief separate from golf, a pain that could never be appeased by sporting achievement, and Cantlay’s foundation now supports first responders, as well as junior golfers, in the state.

Cantlay with the FedEx Cup at East Lake, Atlanta, on 5 September

During that same period of time, Cantlay had, in fact, hardly played any golf at all. In 2013, a stress fracture was diagnosed in his lower back, just as he was on the cusp of his professional breakthrough and, in the space of three years, he played just four professional events. “I’m a much better person and golfer because I’ve been through that [period out of the game],” he says. “My perspective changed. Although it was difficult, it made me who I am today.”

What did he learn about himself when golf was taken away? “I think being comfortable with who you are and liking yourself, even if things aren’t going well,” he says. “Before I got hurt, golf was the be-all and end-all. Afterwards, I realised there are aspects of life a lot more important than golf. I’m always working towards a goal, it’s still a huge priority, but it’s helped me put more focus on things that aren’t golf and that’s part of growing up and becoming a man.”

That sense of perspective will help to dampen the Ryder Cup’s unfamiliar burden of pressure, even if it’s already forged one of the most formidable finishers in golf. He’s not one for grandiose predictions or declarations of battle, just a believer in the same quiet conviction that drummed DeChambeau into submission a few weeks ago. “I think we’ll do well,” he says ominously, with a hint of a smile. “The moment won’t be too big.”

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