As Patrick Cantlay warmed up on the left side of the range at Caves Valley Golf Club ahead of the 2021 BMW Championship, his long-time instructor Jamie Mulligan watched him hit one wedge and gushed, “That’s it.”
Cantlay hit another ball and Mulligan offered the same response. Cantlay shot him a quizzical expression.
“I told him, ‘That’s our look. Stay in that bubble. Your pace is great, your club is in the perfect position and I love the way the ball has been coming off your putter,’ ” recalled Mulligan, the CEO at Virginia Golf Club in Long Beach, California, where Cantlay learned the game and is a member to this day.
If anyone should know if Cantlay was on the verge of arguably his greatest run of golf to date, it was Mulligan, who knew from the first time he set eyes on Cantlay that he was special.
“At our junior clinics we’d tell kids to throw a ball towards a tree and whoever was the closest to it would win a candy bar,” Mulligan recalls. “We’d have 100 kids trying to whip it over there as hard as they could like Nolan Ryan. After they all went Patrick too his ball and rolled one that just followed the contours of the ground and kept going and rolled up right next to the root. What is that? You can’t coach that, right?”
Cantlay, 30, has grown up to win much more than candy bars in golf. What he did at the 15th BMW Championship was nothing short of brilliant, shooting a total of 27-under for 72 holes – and 31 birdies for the week – and it still wasn’t enough to win in regulation. Cantlay would have to duel six more holes in a sudden-death playoff with Bryson DeChambeau before he could drive off with his third trophy of the season.
Cantlay raced out of the gate with rounds of 66-63, but it wasn’t enough to match the other-worldly performance of DeChambeau, who seemingly could do no wrong. After an opening-round 68, the 2020 U.S. Open champion made two eagles and eight birdies in his first 17 holes. He had faced 17 putts inside 12 feet during Friday’s second round and made 16. Unfortunately, he missed a 6-foot birdie putt at the last and settled for a career-best 60 to grab a one-stroke lead over Cantlay.
“A lot of putts went in. A lot of things went right,” said DeChambeau, who was attempting to shoot the 13th sub-60 round in PGA Tour history. “Just wasn’t able to clutch those putts up.”
On Saturday, DeChambeau extended his lead until making his first bogey in 30 holes at No. 12 after slicing his approach in the water. Then he rinsed another ball at No. 13. Cantlay carded 66 and vaulted in front until making a bogey at 18 to share the top spot with DeChambeau (67) heading into the final round.
In the PGA Tour’s first appearance in the Baltimore area in nearly 60 years, the 54-hole leaders put on a show that will be tough to match in the next six decades. Conditions were so ripe for scoring all week that all 69 players in the field finished under par, the first time that’s happened in the history of the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Walking to the first tee on Sunday, Mulligan warned Cantlay that the crowd would be boisterous. Were they ever.
At the outset, the fans backed DeChambeau, who had been hitting moon shots off the tee all week.
“When they announced Patrick, the fans were still going so wild for Bryson that you couldn’t hear yourself think,” Mulligan recalled. “Pat made birdie at the first hole and a couple of people clapped.”
Cantlay continued to silence DeChambeau’s supporters with birdies, en route to shooting a Sunday 66, and with each hole, Cantlay gained his own rooting interest. His followers reached new heights when someone exclaimed, “Patty Ice is rad.”
Within two holes, Mulligan said, the gallery adopted the nickname, a twist on Matty Ice, the moniker of NFL quarterback Matt Ryan.
Despite the partisan crowd and DeChambeau consistently belting drives 40 yards past him, Cantlay was unfazed.
“I just try and lock in and do my absolute best in that moment, and my best is pretty good,” he said.
Coming down the stretch, DeChambeau seemed to have gained the upper hand with a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-5 16th. That gave him a one-stroke lead, and Cantlay still had to hole an 8-foot par putt. In a sign of things to come, he made it.
DeChambeau appeared to have the title wrapped up after Cantlay’s tee shot at the par-3 17th bounced short and to the right, rolled onto the rock framing the pond and dropped into the water. But he planted a lob wedge from the drop area to 8 feet. DeChambeau had missed the green, too, and chipped to 12 feet and two-putted for bogey. Cantlay made his putt to stay one back.
“I know how well Patrick can putt, and Patrick knows that I know how well he can putt. I’ve seen him putt forever and he started to look like a freight train, like he’s going to make everything,” Mulligan said.
When Cantlay drained a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th and DeChambeau missed his 12-foot birdie try for the win, they had tied for 72 holes, four strokes better than South Korea’s Sungjae Im, five ahead of Rory McIlroy and left South African Erik von Rooyen in their wake in fifth, six strokes back.
None of the fans dared leave as the playoff stretched six holes with plenty of drama. In all, DeChambeau missed four birdie putts that could have won the tournament. The pendulum appeared to shift in Cantlay’s favor when DeChambeau drove into the water at 17, the fourth extra hole, but he salvaged a par to extend the tight duel yet again.
“A playoff loss feels worse than a playoff win feels good. I don’t why that is, but they don’t feel good,” Mulligan mused. “It never felt like Patrick wasn’t going to keep making putts and he did.”
At the fifth playoff hole, Cantlay answered DeChambeau’s brilliant tee shot, knocking his own to inside 3 feet and both made birdie.
Finally, at the sixth extra hole, Cantlay sank the decisive blow as his 18-foot birdie putt at 18 toppled in. When DeChambeau missed from inside 10 feet, he became the first player to shoot a 72-hole aggregate of 261 on the PGA Tour and not win. Cantlay had secured his fifth Tour title and third of the season and clinched a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He claimed the top spot heading into the FedEx Cup Playoffs finale and would go on to win the season-long points race a week later at the Tour Championship and the exorbitant payday that goes with it.
There will be other thrilling duels to come at the BMW Championship, but it’s hard to imagine a player will putt out of his mind the way Cantlay did for one remarkable tournament.
Cantlay made more than 537 feet of putts for the week and gained 14.58 strokes on the field with his putting, the most strokes gained putting in a 72-hole event since tracking began on the Tour in 2004. And yet the numbers almost don’t do it justice.
Asked if he could recall a similar performance from Cantlay with the short stick, Mulligan said, “I don’t think anybody’s ever putted that well.”
And it’s possible no one ever will.