There’s a real debate right now regarding the most underrated golfer in the world, and Patrick Cantlay is right in the middle of it. Of the current top eight in the Official World Golf Ranking, he is (by far!) the most inconspicuous, and he’s quietly had a little two-year run in which he had six top-three finishes, made $10 million and nearly won the Masters.
All the while, you probably didn’t even notice he was there.
This is how Cantlay operates: under the radar and out of the spotlight. His career has been besieged by injury and tragedy, but just as he was at the amateur level, he’s one of the best players in a world that focuses far more on everyone around him.
Let’s take a deep dive on Cantlay’s career to date as well as his trajectory going forward.
PGA Tour events: 90 | Wins: 2 (2.2%) | Best win: Memorial (2019)
Top 10s: 24 (27%) | Top 25s: 50 (56%)
It’s odd that someone this good would have only played 90 events at the age of 28, but Cantlay missed the large part of four years because of an injury in 2013 at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Here’s how he described it in Golf Digest.
It happened in an instant. When I made a swing on the range at Colonial in May 2013, it felt like a knife had been stuck in my back. Completely out of nowhere. I hadn’t known pain like that before, not even when I broke my wrist in eighth grade. This was a stress fracture in my spine, and the only cure was a whole lot of rest. I had no idea one moment could have such a lasting effect. Until then, my life—and especially my golf life—had been pretty charmed. Maybe “charmed” isn’t really the right word, because I had worked really hard to put myself in that perfect position.
Since returning from that injury, though, the former No. 1 amateur in the world has been lights out. Four top 10s in just 13 starts in 2016-17 and seven more top 10s in 2017-18. All of that preceded his career year in 2018-19 in which he won the Memorial, had four other top-three finishes and notched two top 10s at major championships (Masters, PGA Championship).
Cantlay even flirted with the green jacket before Tiger Woods went on to win at Augusta National last year. After making eagle on No. 15 in the final round to get to 12 under ahead of the final few groups, Cantlay bogeyed the next two holes to fall back to 10 under and finished T9 on the week.
Still, his was a coming-out party last season. He finished second to Rory McIlroy in strokes gained, just ahead of Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Webb Simpson and Jon Rahm. This is the kind of company I imagine we’ll see Cantlay keep for years to come.
Through 90 PGA Tour events, Cantlay has been incredibly consistent. He’s missed just 14 cuts and finished in the top 20 an impressive 42 times. This is fewer than guys like Rory McIlroy (51) and Jordan Spieth (53) but more than other contemporaries like Justin Thomas (32) and Rickie Fowler (30).
Cantlay hasn’t won as much as maybe you would expect from somebody who has been in the top 20 in strokes gained on the PGA Tour for four straight seasons, but I would expect that to change soon (and maybe even rapidly). When your tee-to-green ranking the last four years looks like this — 15th, 10th, 5th, 6th — you’re going to win some golf tournaments.
As with everyone, Cantlay will be judged by what he does at the majors. Again, he’s played in surprisingly few — just nine as a pro. He’s made the cut in seven straight and finished in the top 25 in four of those. The next step for him is pretty obviously contending for a major. When you go out and shoot 64 in the final round to win the Memorial, you clearly have the goods. The question simply becomes whether you can play that way for four straight days in one of the four majors.
I’m extremely bullish on Cantlay’s future. If players were stocks, Cantlay’s would be artificially deflated because he’s not flashy, not mega-interesting and not a household name. He’s a tremendous player, though; somebody who I think could have a Payne Stewart-like career. Stewart won 11 times on the PGA Tour, including three majors, before tragically dying at age 42 in a plane crash. Through his first 90 events, he won just one time and had four fewer top-20 finishes than Cantlay.
Ball-strikers are always going to rise to the top in tournament weeks, and while a more competitive PGA Tour might mean fewer overall wins for Cantlay in this era, he’s still one of the best ball-strikers in the world. That means his career — as long as he’s injury-free from here on out — is going to be full of success.
I don’t know that you can get in on the ground floor of a top 10 player in the world, but if you can, Cantlay is the one to back because the wins, notoriety and success are only going up from here.