DUBLIN, Ohio – Power golf is at the heart of the modern game, and it probably will be from this day forward, but there is no discounting the power of the mind, which made all the difference Sunday in the final round of the Memorial Tournament. That such proceedings should transpire at the course and tournament created by Jack Nicklaus is wholly appropriate, considering that he was the man who made power an effective weapon, but only as a complement to his intellectual might.
Mental acuity is difficult to measure, but it’s not hard to recognize.
Patrick Cantlay clearly had it on Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club. And, perhaps, with good reason. The former Jack Nicklaus Award winner picked Jack Nicklaus’ brain earlier in the week about what it takes to close out a golf tournament. Then the laconic UCLA product calmly and methodically fired a bogey-free 64, the lowest round by a winner in Memorial Tournament history, to beat a couple of other cerebral gentlemen, Germany’s Martin Kaymer and Australia’s Adam Scott.
Overcoming a four-stroke deficit at the start of the day, Cantlay, 27, recorded his second PGA Tour title and rose to No. 8 in the world by finishing at 19-under 269, one off the tournament record Tom Lehman set 25 years ago. Add his 64 in the third round and Cantlay also posted the second-lowest final 36 holes in tournament history, one off Curtis Strange’s 131 in 1988.
Is it a coincidence that his weekend surge occurred immediately after his sit-down with the Golden Bear? To some degree, yes.
“It feels like a win has been coming,” said Cantlay, who now has eight top 10s this year and is one of only three players to finish in the top 10 in the year’s first two majors. The others are world Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.
Something clicked, however. And Nicklaus at least was partially the catalyst, though he dismissed his influence. “We’re here talking, so everybody is going to say, ‘Oh, gee, Jack did this.’ I didn’t do anything,” the tournament founder and host said. “He won the golf tournament.
“All I was trying to pass on to Patrick was to try to get a little more of a relaxed attitude in his head so that when he got himself in that position, it wasn’t like all the pressure was on top of him. It may have resonated with him, it may not have.”
Try Door No. 1. It resonated.
Coincidentally, this is the same side of the street that Kaymer and Scott, two former No. 1 players, have been working, attempting to bring calmness and a more nimble acumen to their games. Kaymer hasn’t won since he scorched the field in the 2014 U.S. Open for his second major title. The 2013 Masters winner, Scott has been shut out since back-to-back titles in Florida in 2016, and that streak continued despite a 68 that relegated him to second place, two strokes back.
Scott, who posted his second runner-up of the year, has been residing in a better place since making a series of changes that brought a comfort to his on-course attitude. Kaymer, meanwhile, who had slipped to 186 in the world entering the week, recently altered just one thing – eliminating energy-sapping distractions like social media – to clear his mind and promote calmness.
“Just getting away from so many things, social media, watching TV, reading stuff that is not important,” Kaymer, who ended up third at 273 after a 72, said earlier in the week. “There’s so much gossip, so much talk, so much distraction. And I just got out of that.”
Cantlay, meanwhile, tapped a different vein. On Wednesday, the top collegiate player in 2011 bumped into Nicklaus in the clubhouse. Jack promptly told him, “you’ve got to figure out how to play those last 30 minutes.” This was noise Cantlay didn’t want to turn off. “Hearing it from someone like Jack gives it a little more weight – a lot more weight,” he said.
Two days later, eating lunch after a solid 69, Cantlay was fed a bit more food for thought from the Bear. “He said, ‘You need to go out there and have a good time. Look around when you’re out there. And then you need to have a great time and realize that that’s why you’re out there and relax and go have fun and go with the golf tournament,’” Cantlay shared. “I definitely said that to myself down the stretch today. It put me a little more at ease.”
He already was more at east than most at Muirfield Village, having shown up two years ago for his first start in the Memorial – after a long and frustrating and emotional stretch on the sidelines – and immediately asking Nicklaus to talk him through the golf course. That quick tutoring session also contributed to a confident demeanor. He finished T-4 last year and figured he was due to build on that.
And he did, although Cantlay, who began the final round 11 under par, didn’t catch Kaymer until he birdied the par-5 11th hole to reach 17 under. Then he birdied 14 and 15, the latter after he just missed an eagle try by inches from 47 feet, to take charge while Kaymer struggled with his driver and began pressing.
Finally out front, Cantlay closed with three pars, including a sand save at the home hole capped by a clutch eight-foot putt that all but sealed it. His face was a study in concentration, not enjoyment, but the enjoyment soon followed when he shook the tournament host’s hand.
“Having his words in my head and being able to close it out here in front of Jack is a great feeling,” said Cantlay, who sees Nicklaus as a bit of a kindred spirit. The Golden Bear wouldn’t disagree.
“Patrick reminded me a lot of me at being serious and I get so wrapped up in what I’m doing I forget about everything else that’s going on around me,” Nicklaus said. “And I learned years ago that when I got close to finishing a tournament, maybe two or three holes or four holes left, I would stop, look around me — just exactly what he was saying earlier. Stop, look around me, say — take a nice big breath. It would relax me. I’d look around, these people are here, they’re having fun. I need to have fun. I need to enjoy winning this golf tournament, not torment me trying to finish the golf tournament.”
Cantlay already has been introduced to torment – of the most personal and heart-wrenching kind. He talked about it at length after winning his first tour title two years ago in Las Vegas. He’s missed three years of his career already, two to a back injury and another enduring the emotional trauma of watching his best friend and caddie Chris Roth die after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in 2016 in Newport Beach, Calif. Cantlay was just 10 feet away when the accident occurred, and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of that terrible night.
But he said in Las Vegas and he repeated it at Muirfield Village that he refuses to make the tragedy a part of his comeback narrative. He will not be defined by it, at least not as a professional golfer.
“I’m definitely a different person than I was before I went through any of those troubles,” he allowed. “But I don’t really connect the two when it comes to playing golf again. It changed me as a person, not just as a golfer. It doesn’t really affect me, you know, as a golfer. I feel like I picked up kind of where I left off in my golf. And I still feel — even though I’m a little older, I still feel like I’m getting started in my career and figuring it all out.
“But I don’t necessarily connect the struggles to golf. And in my brain, I’m very resolute on that because that stuff changed me as a person. It was so much bigger than golf that it’s just not … it’s not even in the same league, so it doesn’t affect my golf.”
And now Cantlay has learned from the best how to use his brain more effectively to execute in the clutch, which may well affect the golf others play, as it did on Sunday.
More power to him.