DUBLIN, Ohio – Brooks Koepka won’t be worried about what happened here last weekend in the land of Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament (or Ohio Faux Masters) and the buckeye milkshake (chocolate-peanut butter).
Koepka wouldn’t be worried about an Armageddon-ish meteor streaking toward Earth, either. He’d just do 20 more dead-lifts, win another major and swat that annoying meteor out of his way as if it were Dustin Johnson or Tiger Woods.
Maybe Koepka should be ever-so-slightly concerned. He has a new formidable contender to deal with: Patrick Cantlay.
Here’s the catch: Cantlay could be Koepka Lite. At 5 feet 10 inches and 160 pounds, he is a bit smaller (2 inches in height, a few dozen pounds of muscle), a bit shorter off the tee (but not all that much) but every bit as fierce.
You already know Cantlay’s name if you’ve been paying attention. Who popped out of nowhere to snag the Masters lead briefly on the back nine before Woods reigned supreme? Cantlay, with 64-68 on the weekend. Who went 66-69 the next weekend and tied for third at Harbour Town? Cantlay. Who posted 68-71 in the last two rounds to tie for third at the PGA Championship, won by Our Mr. Brooks? Cantlay.
Sunday, Cantlay closed with an 8-under-par 64, low round of the day at Muirfield Village Golf Club, to leave Adam Scott and Martin Kaymer in the dust (OK, pollen) and win the Memorial Tournament (scores).
Every winner on the PGA Tour looks as if he’s going to storm the castle of greatness because he played his best golf that week. In the case of Cantlay, he looks as if his best golf is a match for anyone, and there is more to come.
Koepka won’t lose any sleep about this. He’s going for a third straight U.S. Open next week. No big deal, but …
“Brooks plays much like you do,” Nicklaus told Cantlay in the winner’s media interview. “Brooks is a strong player, plays hard and doesn’t back off. I haven’t seen Patrick back off. He plays pretty aggressive all the time.
“His game is very suited for majors. Drives the ball very straight. His iron game is obviously very good. He’s got a good attitude. He’s not trying to do something flashy. He tries to play good, solid golf. And that’s really what it takes to play major-championship golf.”
Cantlay, 27, was a star amateur and collegian at UCLA. He was low amateur at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional. He excelled at every level of golf and was considered a can’t-miss pro. His career was derailed by a back problem that sidelined him for two years. He came back in 2017 and didn’t miss a beat. This is his second PGA Tour win. He also won a fall event in Las Vegas.
Koepka still isn’t going to blink. But Cantlay has played eight major championships as a pro and already finished 12th or better in three of the four majors, including third at the PGA last month and ninth at the Masters in April.
His confidence and experience are growing exponentially, just like Koepka’s during the past two years. The media latched on to a story that Cantlay and Nicklaus told about the two of them meeting at Jack’s house two years ago when Cantlay played here for the first time, a strategy session that lasted 90 minutes and featured Nicklaus going over Muirfield Village hole-by-hole. He might know something about its nuances because he designed the place.
There also was a tidbit about Nicklaus bumping into Cantlay earlier this week in the grill room and telling him, in effect, don’t forget to have fun, a concept meant to help Cantlay play more relaxed over the stressful closing holes.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to figure out how to play those last 30 minutes,’ ” Cantlay said. “I said, ‘You’re right.’ I was having lunch Friday and he grabbed me and said, ‘You need to go out there, have a good time. Look around, look at all the people having a great time out there and realize that’s why you’re there.’ I definitely said that to myself down the stretch today, and it put me a little more at ease.”
Cantlay has the same thousand-yard stare as Koepka, which is the same game-face as Woods. Cantlay looks ready to blitz the quarterback from the blind side, not go to a picnic.
“I understand that’s my look,” Cantlay said with a laugh. “That’s kind of how I am all the time. I was walking into the clubhouse this morning and somebody said, ‘It can’t be that bad, can it?’ And I was in a great mood then. I understand how you could say that, but I feel like if I try to be any other way, it wouldn’t be me.”
Cantlay’s play on the back nine was smart and impressive. He birdied both par 5s, Nos. 11 and 15, and got a bonus birdie via a 47-foot putt at the par-4 14th. At the 18th, he closed out his victory with an up-and-down from the front bunker after a slight mis-hit on his approach. He had a two-shot lead over Scott at the time, so he would have been forgiven if he’d lagged his par putt from 8 feet and taken his chances on the Aussie making birdie at the tough 18th. But, no. Cantlay of No Mercy rolled it right in.
Nicklaus said Cantlay reminds him of another player, a big kid from central Ohio who did all right a long time ago. “Patrick reminds me a lot of me at being serious,” Nicklaus said. “I got so wrapped up in what I was doing, I forgot about everything else going on around me.”
Anything yet, Koepka? Didn’t think so. Well, how about this? Cantlay was admittedly bummed that once he returned to golf and won right away in Las Vegas, the floodgates didn’t open and the victories didn’t roll in. This Memorial victory was two long years in the making, aching and heart-breaking.
Forget all the mechanics and golf stuff. Cantlay should be taken seriously, very seriously, because he’s got that thing – hunger, desire, need, craving – that major champions possess. Koepka has won four of the last eight majors in which he played, but he’s not satisfied. He is certain that he is just getting started. Cantlay is in a similar place. He’s got the right attitude for majors, just like Koepka. Majors count; everything else is good sport.
“I really like major-championship golf,” Cantlay said. “I feel like it suits my game. As far as I’m concerned, the rough can’t be long enough, the fairways can’t be narrow enough, the greens can’t be fast enough. I love golf like that.”
That’s straight out of the Nicklaus-Woods-Koepka playbook ; tougher equals better equals better for me. How many other players have you heard beg for stronger setups?
One more thing. Cantlay, a native Californian, loves Pebble Beach. He has played it “multiple times” and said, “I feel really comfortable around there.”
Make a note of that. At Pebble Beach, Koepka goes for a third straight Open. Cantlay goes for his first. Koepka won’t be worried.
Now, neither will Cantlay.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle