Patrick Cantlay is a star, and now he'll have to meet the expectations that come with being one. He emerged this season as perhaps the most well-rounded golfer on the planet and will enter next season coming off a FedEx Cup Playoffs of his dreams with wins at the last two playoff events and take-home pay of $15 million alone from the 2021 Tour Championship on Sunday at East Lake Golf Club.
But there is one gaping hole in his still-growing resume.
It's not so much that Cantlay has yet to win a major championship; he's barely contended for one. In six tries this season, his best finish was a T15 at the U.S. Open. His best finish ever was a T3 at the 2019 PGA Championship, which he was not close to winning, though his closest real contention was probably a T9 at the 2019 Masters, which he led with a few holes to go before Tiger Woods ended up triumphing. Cantlay has just two top 10s in 19 tries at majors.
Of the previous 12 FedEx Cup champions, nine of them have won major championships. You don't luck into winning a season-long race. You win it because your game is among the best in the world, which is where Cantlay's ranks.
Over the last 12 months, Cantlay is gaining 2.07 strokes per round, third-best in the world behind only Jon Rahm (2.62) and Dustin Johnson (2.08). Nobody else is higher than 2.0, and Cantlay is the only player in the world who is gaining at least 0.4 strokes per round in every category (putting, short game, approach play and off the tee).
This is what not having a single hole in your game looks like, which Cantlay showed off over the last two weeks with wins at the BMW Championship and Tour Championship. He pummeled other players with a 1-2 combination off the tee and with an iron game that is nearly peerless. And when that waned, he poured in more shots from deep than a Klay Thompson-Stephen Curry warm-up session.
Cantlay's game, somewhat ironically, seems like it would fit fast and firm major championship setups better than it does the softer setups he saw during the FedEx Cup Playoffs. There's not a single thing he struggles to do, and he likes destroying you with iron play, often the preeminent skill at the best events in the world.
"I expect it to get really firm and fast, and I think that's when this golf course shines," Cantlay said at the Masters in April where he missed the cut. "I mean, everyone loves seeing the chips and putts that seem to trickle out forever and take forever to get to the hole, and that really brings out the great design that the golf course is. And so I'm looking forward to the challenge that that is, and it puts a premium even more on controlling your golf ball, which I think is one of my strengths."
And yet, he has yet to thrive at the four biggest events in the world. Even his mental makeup is perfect for major championships. He's a good closer and a thoughtful one, too. He spoke often throughout the last two weeks about playing golf under the gun and how much he loves to do it.
"This week [at the Tour Championship], as silly as it sounds, the money is not what's really important for me," said Cantlay. "The money is not what drives me to play this game. Winning golf tournaments, playing golf under pressure and hitting quality golf shots under the gun, I mean, that's why I practice and that's why I practiced my whole life. That's the best feeling in the world, is winning golf tournaments for me."
There are some Rahm parallels. The two played together over the last three days at the Tour Championship, and while Rahm is probably a more complete ball-striker, those two have probably the most complete games in the world (along with D.J. and perhaps Xander Schauffele). Rahm didn't win a major until the U.S. Open this year, and similarly to Cantlay, he didn't truly contend in very many either. It shines a hopeful light on the future for Cantlay.
This is not a criticism of Cantlay's game. Rather, it is a question of how to reconcile a skillset that should win majors with a career breakdown shows it hasn't been that close. His poor performance in the majors this year could cost him PGA Tour Player of the Year, too. It probably won't, but it certainly could. Players notice who thrives when all the dials are turned up and the stakes are the highest, and Cantlay having fewer top-10 finishes than Padraig Harrington certainly stands out.
2021 major finishes— Joel Beall (@JoelMBeall) September 5, 2021
Rahm: T5, T8, Win, T3
Cantlay: MC, T23, T15, MC
A fantastic run for Cantlay, but would be odd to give Player of the Year to someone who wasn’t a factor in the four biggest events.
Expectations are different now going forward for the FedEx Cup champion. Not even necessarily because of the FedEx Cup win but rather because four wins in a year changes how people view you. You certainly don't luck into that. Over the last 22 seasons (since 2000), 21 golfers have won three or more times in a season (including Cantlay). Only Kenny Perry, Steve Stricker and now Cantlay are not currently major champions. When you win at this clip, your Masters pre-tournament press conference in April hits a bit differently.
Speaking of the Masters, I came across a quote from Jack Nicklaus on Cantlay recently. Cantlay has won Nicklaus' tournament -- the Memorial -- twice and has been vocal about how he's purposefully sought out one of the two best major championship golfers of all time.
"His game is very suited for majors," said Nicklaus. "Drives the ball very straight. His iron game is obviously very good. He's got a good attitude. He's ... not trying to do something flashy. He tries to play good, solid golf. And that's really what it takes to play major championship golf."
There are few endorsements better than one from somebody who has won 18 of these things. Cantlay, like Rahm this time a year ago or two years ago, seems destined to eventually win a major (or more). It has mostly always felt like that with him because of how good he was as an amateur and how elite every facet of his game has always been. This year's playoffs only solidified it.
Cantlay went to this year's Masters as a contender with some expectations. Next year, he'll go as a star with a whole lot more.