Patrick Cantlay drew up a simple game plan to erase a three-stroke deficit heading into the final round of the Zozo Championship.
“Make as many birdies as I can,” he said.
Easier said than done for most of us mere mortals, but Cantlay poured in more than 110 feet of putts on Sunday in carding nine birdies, tying the most he’s ever made in a PGA Tour round. It added up to a 7-under 65 at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California, for the Cali native and was good enough to surge past overnight leader Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm, who tied for second, for his third PGA Tour title.
One of the most consistent players on Tour, Cantlay ranked in the top 20 in 50 different statistical categories a year ago, but his putter had been holding him back since his last victory at the Memorial in 2019. He recently switched to a slightly heavier and half-inch longer Scotty Cameron Newport GSS putter and worked hard last week on his path, placing his hands more forward in hopes of getting the putter more square at address.
“Got a little too inside and sometimes that can happen and just try to get it back a little more down the line,” he explained.
It also didn’t hurt that he received a helpful hand, or shall we say set of eyes, from the owner of one the silkiest putting strokes he knows, Rickie Fowler, who happened to be his roommate last week during the CJ Cup. For the first three rounds, Cantlay relied on his superb ballstriking and played the first 54 holes bogey free in shooting rounds of 67-65-68.
He classified his putting as solid all week, but his stroke heated up on Sunday, as he gained more 3 strokes on the field and put together the third-best putting round among the 77-man field.
“Today they just happened to go in,” he said.
Did they ever. Cantlay tied Thomas and Rahm atop the leaderboard at 22 under with his seventh birdie in his first 13 holes. His three-quarter 7-iron at the 176-yard par-3 15th hole guarded by water was the difference maker.
“The line was perfect,” he said. “It was just one of those swings where you make the swing exactly how you picture it in your head.”
With the hole tucked in front, Cantlay’s tee shot danced around the cup and settled 10 feet away. When he canned the left-to-right putt for his third straight birdie, his lead grew to two strokes and it proved to be a big enough cushion despite a bogey at the par-5 16th.
Thomas, who bogeyed the par-3 15th after he plugged his ball in deep grass on the rocky face short of the green, signed for 3-under 69, but failed to take advantage of the par 5s and squandered his third straight 54-hole lead.
“To play the par 5s in 1 under is just unacceptable if you’re trying to win a golf tournament,” Thomas said. “I fought like hell, I fought as hard as I could, I just didn’t have my best stuff.”
Thomas made birdie at the last to tie Rahm for second and prevent him from regaining the title of World No. 1 from Dustin Johnson, who withdrew as he continues to deal with the coronavirus. Rahm grabbed the lead with a birdie at No. 11, but coughed it up quickly with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13. He needed a birdie on 18 to force a playoff but his 19-footer on the last missed wide right.
Russell Henley, Cameron Smith, Bubba Watson and Ryan Palmer were T-4 at 19 under, four shots back.
Despite growing up in Long Beach and attending UCLA, Cantlay had never laid eyes on Sherwood Country Club let alone played it, and only had seen the back nine twice before the tournament began because he elected to take Monday off to rest after playing consecutive tournaments in Las Vegas. But he took to it quickly – his 72-hole winning total of 23-under 265 is none too shabby – as well as to Sunday’s inclement conditions – “Everyone was complaining about it this morning, but I kind of like it,” he said – and called winning in his home state “sweeter.”
Cantlay said he plans to skip the next two tournaments – the Bermuda Championship and Houston Open – ahead of the Masters, where he made a similar Sunday charge last year and held the lead until making a costly bogey at 16.
Asked if he was concerned whether his game may have peaked too early, he said, “I don’t think so. I was able to win one of the tournaments Tiger won last year, so now I’m just going to go try and win the other event that Tiger won last year.”