Ruthless, No-nonsense, Insatiable Desire
Contributor: Doug Ferguson
Cantlay led the way among the other stars in their 20s, and a case could be made that he had as big a breakthrough as anyone. There is nothing outlandish about the way he carries himself or even the way he plays the game. Cantlay’s greatest strength as a player is that he has no discernible weakness. He is looked upon as his generation’s version of David Duval with the way he plays and his no-nonsense approach to the game. He has a ruthlessness about him on the golf course, and an insatiable desire for reading more than just a yardage book. His book of choice was the first part of the Winston Churchill trilogy, The Last Lion. This is a different breed of golfer.
The year he had would have been predicted a decade ago when he was low amateur at the US Open, the number one amateur in the world, and shot 60 at the Travelers Championship before his sophomore year of college. But then he ran into serious back problems at the onset of his career, and there was deep concern he might never play. After missing three years in his prime development, he returned in 2017 and qualified for the Tour Championship in just 11 starts, none of them victories. And that was the problem. For all his talent, Cantlay only had three wins to show for it, and only one serious bid at a major.
Winning the Memorial, even after Rahm had to withdraw, was not a given. He had to make a 25-foot birdie putt on the 71st hole to catch Morikawa, a 12-foot par putt to extend the sudden-death playoff, and he won on the second extra hole. Even more clutch was the BMW Championship at Caves Valley. With no margin for error against DeChambeau, Cantlay made an eight-foot par on the 16th hole, an eight-foot bogey putt on the 17th hole, a 20-foot birdie on the 18th to force a playoff. He twice made pars at 18 in the playoff from six feet and seven feet to stay in the game, and he won with a 20-foot birdie putt on the sixth playoff hole. The fans kept calling him, “Patty Ice”, and he lived up to the moniker. As for his newfound fame, such as it was, Cantlay wasn’t sure what to think. “I don’t know if I’ve been known long enough to answer that,” he said.
For the PGA Tour season, which included the Zozo Championship in the fall of 2020, Cantlay had four victories, the FedEx Cup and was PGA Tour Player of the Year. He also opened eyes when the US media finally showed some interest in him. Of note was his soliloquy at the Tour Championship on players seeking attention through social media and the troubles that can present. The topic was DeChambeau, who had been subjected to some heckling throughout the summer that led PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan to issue a no-tolerance policy for fan behaviour. DeChambeau loves to bring attention to himself through his long ball or his science, and at times he got more attention than he wanted.
DeChambeau was coming off his first major win at the US Open in 2020 and viewed as a major disruptor in the world of golf with his pursuit of incredible bulk on his body to support the enormous speed he was generating with his swing. He prepared and he swung the driver as if he were part of the Long Drive Association, except that he was playing tournament golf, and there were times when the two blended beautifully. DeChambeau won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, and as usual, it was must-see, particularly one hole. He had talked about taking his tee shot over the lake on the par-five sixth hole, which bends left around the water. This was pure theatre. DeChambeau huffed and puffed and swung from the heels, raising his arms as if he had won a heavyweight fight when the ball landed some 30 yards short of the green. Ultimately, he won with a five-foot par putt on the last hole to beat Lee Westwood by one shot.
The rest of the year was a letdown, with only two other reasonable chances to win, none greater than the BMW Championship. He missed a six-foot putt on the final hole to miss out on a chance to shoot 59 in the second round, and a putt about that length that would have given him the win. His greatest battle was with Koepka, which traces to allegations of slow play from two years earlier, ramped up with a video of Koepka shaking his head during a television interview as DeChambeau walked by, and turned into a silly war of the words the rest of the way. It felt as though neither side won, and both players had just one victory to show for the year. Koepka claims two titles with his 12-hole match he won in Las Vegas.
Winning remained as difficult as ever, so even a pedestrian year by the standards of some of golf ’s best was no cause for alarm. Justin Thomas captured The Players Championship to steady a tough start to the year, which included the death of his grandfather. Johnson was winless on the PGA Tour for only the second year since he joined the tour in 2008. He at least won the Saudi International in its final playing as a European Tour event. Schauffele, another young player with the entire skill set, at least won an Olympic gold medal after being kept from a PGA Tour title for the second straight year. Most noticeable among that group was Johnson, who finished 49th on the World Money List. His best golf was when he was playing for free — a 5-0 mark in the Ryder Cup, the first by an American since Larry Nelson in 1979.
Some had big years without having won, a list that starts with Scottie Scheffler. The 25-year-old Texan had done well enough on the Korn Ferry Tour and early in his rookie season that when the pandemic briefly shut down golf, he was high enough in the world ranking to qualify for some of the majors and World Golf Championships. He reached the championship match of the WGC Dell Technologies Championship, had top 10s in the PGA Championship, US Open and The Open (he tied for 18th in the Masters), and played well enough to get the final captain’s pick from Steve Stricker for the Ryder Cup. Scheffler was the first Ryder Cup rookie for the Americans without a PGA Tour victory since Rickie Fowler in 2010. And he delivered one of the biggest blows, not only a 15-foot birdie putt late in a foursomes match that staked the Americans to a huge lead going into singles, but he began his singles match against Rahm with four straight birdies on his way to a 4 and 3 victory.
Louis Oosthuizen, meanwhile, had the year that almost was. The South African with the silky swing ended the year having gone 62 consecutive events worldwide without winning. His only major remains The Open at St Andrews in 2010. And yet, he was a whisker away from claiming three majors in 2021. His putter went cold on the weekend at Kiawah Island, and he had to settle for a runner-up finish, two shots behind Mickelson, at the PGA Championship. The US Open appeared to be his for the taking, leading by one shot at Torrey Pines until he pulled his tee shot into the ravine left of the 17th fairway, making bogey as Rahm was going on his birdie-birdie ending. Another silver medal for Oosthuizen. And then at The Open, Oosthuizen was in the final group when one shot changed everything. He bladed a bunker shot on the easy par-five seventh hole over the green and into a plugged lie. That led to a bogey that felt much worse, paving the way for Morikawa to take the lead, and the American took it from there. Oosthuizen tied for third.
“It’s not great when you finish second. I remember the feeling I had losing in 2012 against Bubba in a playoff at the Masters. It’s one of the worst feelings as a golfer that you experience, but at the same time, I saw how much it was for him to win, what it meant for him, and that sort of encourages me to try even more to have that moment to experience. It keeps you going,” Oosthuizen said. “You know, the game can be cruel sometimes, but when it happens — when something good happens for the other guy and he deserves to win — you just need to praise that, praise him for what he’s done, and then try next time to come up on top.” He finished the year 10th in the world ranking and number 12 in the World Money List, a small consolation for a year that might have been.