Why the 1,419th-ranked player in the world just became the best story of 2017

March 12, 2017

Patrick Cantlay didn’t win the Valspar Championship on Sunday, but after all he’s been through he did become the feel-good story of the young 2016-17 season.

Cantlay, a former standout at UCLA and U.S. Amateur finalist, came up a stroke shy of Adam Hadwin, but his runner-up finish earned him $680,400, enough cash to secure his PGA Tour card for the remainder of the season.

Here’s why that’s kind of a big deal for the one-time wunderkind: As an undergrad at UCLA, Cantlay won the Jack Nicklaus Award and the Haskins Award and was the world’s top-ranked amateur for more than a year. He qualified for the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and finished as the low amateur at T-21. A week later, he shot the lowest round by an amateur in Tour history with a course-record 10-under 60 in the second round of the Travelers at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., and finished T-24.

Cantlay turned pro in June 2012 and won the Web.com tour’s Colombia Championship in 2013. But back injuries flared up, and he never played more than seven PGA Tour events in a season. He played just one Tour event in 2015 and none last year. His Official World Golf Ranking fell to 1,419th entering the Valspar, but is projected to jump to 239th after his runner-up finish.

In 2016, he also faced a shocking tragedy off the course. In February of that year, his caddie and friend, Chris Roth, was struck by a car and died in front of Cantlay in a hit-and-run in Newport Beach, Calif.

“It still bothers me every day,” Cantlay, who was about 10 feet from his friend when he was struck, told The Orange County Register last month. “It changes the way that you see things for a while. Maybe not forever, you get numb to it. For a while, I couldn’t care less about everything. Not just golf. Everything that happened in my life for a couple months didn’t feel important. Nothing felt like it mattered.”

On Saturday, Cantlay was asked if was worried he would never make it back on Tour.

“It was a concern for sure,” he said. “You know, being out for so long and not feeling the best for a long time. But I knew I was always going to be able to, I’m very fortunate and very happy. I put in a lot of hard work to feeling good and I’m happy to be back playing.”

After his Sunday 68, in which he birdied four of five holes to start the back nine (and five in a six-hole span overall), Cantlay was visibly frustrated. He was more upset about losing than he was happy to retain his card.

“I guess it’s the one positive from this week,” Cantlay said, “but I’m not really thinking of it on those terms. I’m just trying to go out and win a golf tournament.”

Now he’ll have plenty more opportunities to do just that.