Patrick Cantlay tees off on the 10th hole during his practice round for the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Wednesday, August 21, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Cantlay is back at East Lake and this time it’s different

If Patrick Cantlay wins the Tour Championship this week, is his back strong enough to pick up a $15 million check?

The California kid hasn’t had any lumbar issues since he received a clean bill of health in 2017. Since then, he’s begun to live up to the high expectations that started when he was the No. 1 amateur in the world and left UCLA after two seasons to turn professional. 

“My back’s not an issue and hasn’t been for a while,” Cantlay said Wednesday. “What I’m 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 good game plan for feeling good all the time.”

Cantlay suffered a stress fracture in his lower back in 2013 and the effects lingered through 2014. It prevented him from playing at all in 2015 and 2016. With his health restored and a revamped swing designed to lessen the stress on his back, Cantlay rejoined the PGA Tour in 2017 and over the past two seasons has been a model of consistency.

This year Cantlay has one victory -- a big one at the Memorial Tournament -- and nine top-10 finishes in 20 starts. He had two top-10s in the majors – T-9 at the Masters and T-3 at the PGA Championship -- and placed second last week at the BMW Championship. He enters the Tour Championship holding the No. 2 spot on the FedEx Cup points list.

“It was a solid year to get here,” he said. “Happy to be in the spot I’m in.”

With the format change this year at East Lake, Cantlay will start the tournament two strokes behind top-seeded Justin Thomas. Cantlay will be focused on tracking down Thomas, but he must keep an eye behind him with players such as Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy on his heels. 

“The new format kind of leads people to talk about it … running somebody down just because of how it starts and how abnormal it is,” he said. “I’m just thinking about doing my best on this golf course this week. Then come Sunday, I’ll look at the leaderboard and see where I’m at and maybe change the idea in my head of what it’s like. All that matters is how you finish given the new scoring.”

This will be Cantlay’s third opportunity to compete at East Lake. His results have been middling – a tie for 20th in 2017 and a tie for 21st in 2018. But for the first time he’s playing at a high level and carrying high expectations. In those years he was more fatigued because of the amount of golf he played leading up to the Tour Championship. Not so this year.

“I think this is the best form I’ve had coming into this tournament, and it’s definitely the most rested I’ve felt,” he said. “I’ve done a better job managing my energy levels and then there’s been one less playoff event this year.”

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