Why Patrick Cantlay is a star of the sport even if you never think of him as one

When it comes to top 10 athletes in any sport, it is quite rare to land on one who is not particularly enjoyable to watch. You might find the occasional fan who thinks James Harden’s style is boring or perhaps a contingent who think Fernando Tatis Jr. is not boring enough, but more broadly, most of the best in their respective sport are considered must-see TV and generally beloved (except by opposing fan bases) for their prodigious skill.

And then there is Patrick Cantlay.

Cantlay, who shot 61 on Sunday at The American Express, narrowly lost to Si Woo Kim by a single stroke for what would have been the fourth win of his career. Cantlay is ranked No. 10 in the world. He has had a better career than you think (more on that in a bit), has been one of the handful of best golfers on Earth at every stage of his career … and is not at all enjoyable to watch play golf.

Maybe it’s the lack of emoting from the 28-year-old, or maybe it’s that he has more tics than a forest or possibly it’s that you could seemingly squeeze in entire Dustin Johnson rounds between the time it takes Cantlay to hit golf shots. But Cantlay must have the most disproportionate approval rating to OWGR ranking ratio of any professional golfer anywhere in the world. The only thing that seems more painful than watching him play golf is watching him watch himself play golf.

This vibe obviously hurts Cantlay when it comes to perception, but here’s the interesting part that is also difficult to reconcile. There is, as one of my podcast partners, Greg DuCharme, pointed out recently, very little difference between Cantlay and Rickie Fowler (among some others on the PGA Tour, but Fowler will be our litmus test, as he so often is). I mean this as it relates to their games — though Cantlay is out-pacing where Fowler was at through his first 100 PGA Tour events and is broadly considered the better player — but I also mean in their demeanor and in the way they carry themselves on the course.

Fowler is — and this might not be a very popular take — a very boring golfer to watch, much like Cantlay. If you disagree with that idea, you have likely been roped in by his team’s world-class marketing plan or perhaps you simply enjoy incredibly straightforward, unemotional, low-risks golf. This does not mean Fowler is not good (he is, or has been) nor that this style does not work for him. It is simply an observation from having watched him play for several years. 

There are two differences between Cantlay and Fowler that result in Fowler having all of the endorsements and Cantlay having so few of them. The first is that Fowler is more available and seemingly cares about what those in his orbit (including media members like myself) think of him. This is a good (and very human) thing! He signs endless autographs and does all the professional, famous-people things folks like him are supposed to do. Cantlay seems to care far less about such duties. As one colleague mentioned to me once, “He seems to not really understand why the media exists or what his relationship with them should be.”

The second difference is what we’ll call the myth of Fowler. That Fowler is some dirt bike-loving, Red Bull-drinking superhero is a fantasy. We’re talking about the guy who recently gifted an air compressor to Justin Thomas because he thought, “It’s just an important tool … he can blow out the garage if needs to, as well as handle standard maintenance as far as air pressure on cars.” Fowler is boring. Cantlay is also boring. But the public perception of them is very different (Fowler is likely helped because he plays much faster than Cantlay … as do most humans).

This is certainly not a critique of Fowler, and it might not even be a defense of what Cantlay has accomplished (which is a ton). Perhaps it’s an evaluation of how athletes (and celebrities) are framed for the benefit of those in their spheres and our inability as consumers to do much (if anything) about that.

Statistically-speaking, Cantlay’s career has been startlingly good, especially when you dig deeper and consider some of his contemporaries. Though he’s only won three times, he’s also only played in 96 PGA Tour events as a pro (Fowler won one of his first 100 events). The advanced metrics are off the charts, too. Cantlay — who is a sublime ball-striker — has gained at least 1.5 strokes in each of the last four years. At the same age in his career, Fowler had done this just one time. There are some real Justin Leonard parallels when it comes to Cantlay, which might end up being a good comp for him (Haskins Award winner, 12 PGA Tour wins, one major championship) when it’s all said and done.

Golf, more than most sports, is a meritocracy, and in a lot of ways Fowler has earned everything he’s been on the receiving end of. If he’d been finishing T29 at every event since 2011, nobody would be endorsing him. The reality is that he’s won seven times worldwide and thrived at major championships. He was a superstar as an amateur and tremendous in college as well. There’s actually a world in which Fowler is pretty underrated (that’s another column for another time).

Public capital, on the other hand, is not a meritocracy. Ask the average golf fan, and they would probably tell you that Fowler’s career has been standard deviations better than Cantlay’s. This is not true, though. Cantlay, too, was a wunderkind amateur and equally elite (if not more so) in college. The early part of his pro career was derailed by injury and tragedy so he’s younger as a pro than his age would suggest but has thus far been a bit better than what Fowler was at the same age.

The point here is that sometimes it’s harder with the less palatable stars to figure out how to properly contextualize their achievements and frame what they have done in a way that honestly communicates how good they’ve been. Perhaps this is the entire reason stars are stars, but in a world where meritocracy reigns (or is supposed to) it can be bothersome that two players — equivalently dull on the course — are thought of so differently even though their accomplishments are so similar.

There is nothing here to be solved, only a reminder that sometimes reality is far different from presentation. What we think we see (or what we think we should think) can so often be an illusion. When it comes to Cantlay and his stunning 126 over the weekend at The American Express, it was a reminder that he’s far better than how his toe tapping likely makes you feel and far more accomplished than his aura (or lack thereof) in the golf universe would suggest.

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