Patrick Cantlay’s got 15 million reasons to keep Virginia (Country Club) on his mind

Patrick Cantlay can’t allow the thought of putting $15 million into his wallet this weekend to get into his head, and he says it won’t.

The 27-year-old Long Beach native, Servite High of Anaheim grad and UCLA alum has come to realize it’s his laser-sharp focus on what’s directly ahead on the fairway that’s allowed him to operate at the highest level in professional golf. The rewards, in this case, a $15 million winner’s purse, come later.

It also helps to know that in his corner are the people at the Virginia Country Club, a fact that helps keep him grounded, making him one of the favorites to win the lucrative and prestigious PGA Tour Championship this weekend at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

“I always know I have a group there who are pulling for me. Guys I’ve played with there who I know are on my side,” Cantlay said Wednesday morning prior to playing nine holes with his coach, longtime VCC CEO Jamie Mulligan, as well as with one-time Cal State Long Beach player Xander Schauffele.

“It’s always nice knowing I’ve got that support back there at home, or I should say having that support back in Long Beach, and also nice to see those guys when I come back.”

Cantlay, who’s lived in Jupiter, Florida the last two years, faces a defining moment in his pro career that started in 2012. The $6 million he has already banked this season doubled his career earnings. Now, with a retooled swing and a re-enforced game plan put into place by Mulligan, his coach since he was 7, Cantlay needs no reminders about all the particulars that are on the line.

But for the rest of us:

It’s the final event of the pro tour season, the third step of a three-tier FedEx Cup playoff where only the top 30 compete. How elite a field? Masters champion Tiger Woods, British Open champion Shane Lowry and future Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson aren’t even around at this point.

With an impressive second-place finish last weekend in the BMW Championship in Medinah, Ill., Cantlay comes in hot at No. 2 in the standings, with only Justin Thomas ahead of him.

Because of a new weighted scoring system for the PGA Tour Championship, Cantlay has been given eight strokes against par, i.e. 8-under-par, based on his ranking. Only Thomas, given 10 shots, has more of an advantage. They are among a handful who can win this title without having the lowest 72-hole score. Schauffele, incidentally, comes in ranked No. 8 and starts the tournament with four others at 4-under-par.

When Cantlay and Thomas start their first-round as a twosome Thursday at 11:05 a.m., the last pairing of the day, it may feel like a matchplay event, a one-on-one spotlight on them. Add to that the heat and humidity—it’s expected to be in the low 90s, Thursday and Friday—and the whole thing could feel like a burden. But Cantlay says he’s always been able to find a comfort zone this season that is various parts focus, humility and the knowledge of a personal gallery more than 2,000 miles away at VCC cheering him on.

“He’s had a lovely season to this point, winning or coming close or being a factor in 15 of the 20 events he’s played, always done a great job just staying focused on playing golf, no worries about world ranking points or any of that,” Mulligan said. “You couldn’t find a better person to coach. He’s 24/7 in the pool always doing what he’s supposed to be doing all the time. The course suits him, it’s a ball-hitters course, all right there in front of you.”

Added Cantlay: “We have tried to work this just like a normal week, trying to get everything firing the right way. And then it’s off to the races starting Thursday.”

Cantlay, who has a tie for 20th and tie for 21th on the East Lake course the last two seasons, has been ranked in the Top 10 of the FedExCup standings since winning the prestigious Jack Nicklaus-branded Memorial Tournament in Ohio on June 2, firing a 64 in the final round, matching his lowest round of the season, which he had in the third round of the Masters.

The No. 1 ranked amateur player in the world for 54 straight weeks from 2011-’12, Cantlay reaches this point having overcome stress fractures in his spine that knocked him sideways from 2014-16. During his comeback, his best friend, high school teammate and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed in a hit-and-run accident while the two were crossing a street in Newport Beach.

If there is a sense of overcoming odds, Cantlay can’t put too much thought into any of the storylines the media may want to remind him about coming into this.

“My back’s not an issue and hasn’t been an issue for a while,” he said. “I would say what I’m really proud of is, since coming back, I’ve never had to withdraw from a tournament for not feeling right. And I’ve never really felt like my back’s kept me from practicing at all. And I have a good game plan for feeling good all the time, and I spend a lot of time doing that.”

The rest of the field knows it can’t sleep on Cantlay. Which is interesting, since the avid book reader has been focused lately on just that subject.

“I’m in the middle of ‘Why We Sleep,’ which is a pretty interesting book,” Cantlay admitted. “That’s kind of changed my habits just a little bit. Always tried to be a good sleeper.

“I read a book that maybe changed my thinking the most called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman. It’s all about realizing your bias and how your brain can maybe play tricks on you in certain situations or opportunities in life. And being more cognizant of that, you can better make decisions that will benefit you down the road. And I think, after having read that book, I try to realize where my biases are, realize how I can best spend my time and how best to make decisions, and I think it’s helped me both on and off the golf course.”

As far as the payday coming out of the $45 million total purse, the highest single-event pool of money in PGA Tour history—second place this week pays $5 million, third $4 million, fourth $3 million. In fact, eight players will earn more than $1 million this week, and a top-five nets someone more than they could have received by winning any other 2019 tournament.

When Woods won the Masters last April, the take-home check was a record $2 million. Cantlay’s win at the Memorial was worth $1.6 million.

“I put the forefront on winning golf tournaments and showing up and prepared as I can,” Cantlay said when asked about how he gets his head around the potential payday. “And then where that other stuff ends up the more times I execute winning golf tournaments, the better that stuff will be. I’m out here to win golf tournaments and prepare to win golf tournaments, and I know the better that I do that, the more financial opportunity I’ll have.

“It’s not on the forefront of what I’m thinking about. It’s more like don’t count your chickens before they hatch, and just go about your business and everything will be fine.”

Mulligan said money “is always the last thing he’s thinking about. It’s just about winning. All the other stuff takes care of itself.”

Still, if on Sunday afternoon, Cantlay is walking toward the 18th green with a title clinched, wouldn’t he allow himself a moment to think about how to spend $15 million?

“Probably knowing that… it would make me want to make birdie on the last hole so I could make sure that I was also as high as I could be (on the leader board),” he said. “But that’s exactly kind of to my point about focusing on every shot and moving your golf ball around and just getting totally immersed in doing that over and over and over again, that process.

“I think you could get caught up in something like that and lose your attention or lose your focus and your intensity, and I don’t think that helps you. So I would really stick to my process and focus on just doing everything I can to move my golf ball into the next best spot.”

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