Cantlay Rallies to take ZOZO Title

by Chris Cox and post-event courtesy of The Tour

Images: ZOZO Championship

As Tiger Woods struggled to chase a record 83rd victory at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP at Sherwood, one of his favourite hunting grounds, local boy Patrick Cantlay came from behind, pushing aside early contenders Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm, to claim a victory that he felt was long overdue.

Patrick Cantlay

It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Tiger Woods. Not here at Sherwood Country Club. How could it?

For 15 years, Woods called this place in the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains his home away from home. And for good reason. On six different occasions, the World Golf Hall of Famer departed here a winner, beginning in 1999 with a win over David Duval in primetime TV and continuing five more times between 2001 and 2011 at his Hero World Challenge event.

So, when significant changes to the fall portion of the PGA Tour schedule required Woods to relocate his World Challenge to a more centralised location, a record crowd of nearly 25,000 turned out one last time to watch him leave Sherwood a winner. 

It was the storybook ending everyone felt certain would be told for the No. 1 player in the world.

Except it didn’t. Instead, Zach Johnson erased a four-shot deficit with eight holes to play, a comeback he capped at the 72nd with a miracle hole out for par from a drop area, which forced a playoff. Johnson would go on to win on the first extra hole when Woods missed a five-footer for par to extend the playoff, a stark turnaround from the previous year when it was Woods who birdied the final two holes to erase Johnson’s one-shot advantage.

“I love this place. I’ve got two seconds and now a win, so I love Sherwood,” Johnson said. “I’ll certainly miss this golf course. I like it because there’s a lot of riskreward. There’s a lot of strategy involved in where you hit it and how you hit it. I don’t feel like it necessarily favours the longest guy.”

Now, seven years later, Woods got his chance at redemption when the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP temporarily called Sherwood home in late October. The second-year event, which Woods won in 2019 for his record-tying 82nd PGA Tour victory last October, landed in California when officials from the PGA Tour and ZOZO Inc. determined that the unprecedented challenges of travelling to Japan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic were too much to overcome this season.

Tiger Woods

Jon Rahm

“Sherwood Country Club and its members are honoured to host this year’s ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP @ SHERWOOD and welcome golf’s greatest players as our guests for the week,” said Rob Oosterhuis, PGA, General Manager and CEO of Sherwood Country Club. “We are greatly appreciative to ZOZO Inc., for this unique privilege. Our staff are excitedly preparing the club in anticipation of this extraordinary event and look forward to once again working closely with the PGA Tour.

Sherwood’s scenic Jack Nicklaus Signature design will provide an exceptional background for a memorable week of golf during an unforgettable time.”

Woods, of course, understood this Nicklaus course better than almost anyone. And that intimate knowledge made him an early favourite to successfully defend his ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP @ SHERWOOD title, and potentially become the leading all-time winner on the PGA Tour, but it wasn’t to be.

Sherwood and its residents provided Woods with the early support he needed to grow his TGR Foundation into a vehicle for larger community outreach. That, more than anything, endeared the facility and its members to Woods.

“Sherwood, the board here, all the volunteers that come out and support us in rain, wind, cold or perfect sunny SoCal days,” Woods said in 2013. “They come out to support our event and have made this as special as it has been. I’d say, quite frankly, if we didn’t have this event, we wouldn’t have the learning centre in Orange County. We also wouldn’t have been able to open learning centres around the country. This event has been our mainstay over the years, and it has allowed us a platform to talk about what we’re trying to do for our kids.”

That backing is what made Woods’ final round defeat in 2013 all the more painful. Is a chance at redemption and a record-breaking 83rd Tour victory in the cards for the World Golf Hall of Famer this time?

Woods made just seven starts during the 2019-20 PGA Tour season, winning in his debut at ZOZO before carding a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. But the season ended with little fanfare beyond that for the 44 year-old, who finished no better than a tie for 37th in any of the four starts he made following the Tour’s return to play in June.

He ended the season by shooting 11-over across four rounds at the BMW Championship, tying for 51st and failing to make the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. His first start of the 2020-21 campaign would come two weeks later at the U.S. Open, which took place after the writing of this story.

“(I’m) trying to clean up my rounds and trying to miss the ball in the correct spots,” Woods said after the BMW Championship. “As I said, I haven’t done that. I won’t be able to play on rye again until I get to the U.S. Open, so these last two weeks were nice to (prepare) on rye.”

And while returning to the friendly confines of Sherwood Country Club may have potentially proved useful to Woods, the competition that stood in his way was stronger than ever. Instead of the customary 18-player field at the Hero World Challenge, Woods had to contend with a stacked 78-man field primarily comprised of the leading players from the previous season’s FedExCup standings.

That was to include Dustin Johnson, who won both The Northern Trust and Tour Championship to take home his first career FedExCup, until the 23-time PGA Tour winner and course record holder at Sherwood (a 61 in 2014) announced his withdrawal from the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19.

Day one at Sherwood saw Colombian Sebastian Munoz take a one-shot lead over Tyrrell Hatton and Justin Thomas with an 8-under 64 that included eight birdies, one double bogey, three bogeys and only five pars. 

Thomas inched his way to the top of the leaderboard on Friday with a 7-under 65 on Friday and a one-shot lead, and followed up with a 5-under 67 on Saturday. The American birdied his opening two holes but low scores from the chasing pack saw him overtaken at the top. Then birdies at 16 and 17 gave him a five-under 67 and a slim lead over world number two Jon Rahm, who shot 63.

 On the final day of play, what had been shaping up as a duel between Rahm and Thomas, the Nos. 2 and 3 players in the world, was scuppered by Patrick Cantlay, who surged past both of them with three straight birdies — a 3-wood to the fringe on the par-5 13th that set up a simple two-putt, a 7-iron to 18 feet on the next hole and the most exquisite shot of his final round on the par-3 15th.

Justin Thomas

With a three-quarter 7-iron to a front pin over a tiny rock-lined lagoon, the ball landed next to the hole and rolled out to 10 feet for Cantlay’s ninth birdie of the round, and only the fifth birdie at No.15 on Sunday. “That’s a hard hole and to make a birdie,” he said. “It was just one of those swings where you make the swing exactly how you picture it in your head.”

That gave him a three-shot cushion, and his challengers never caught up. Cantlay finished at 23-under 265. No one else was within four shots of him.

Thomas, who started the round with a one-shot lead, had to scramble for par on the last two par 5s, and hit into hazards on consecutive holes down the stretch. His tee shot to the 15th plugged into thick grass, and Thomas did remarkably well to hack out to 30 feet and make bogey.

Cantlay, in the group ahead of Thomas and Rahm, didn’t realise that he had a three-shot lead and went after another birdie with a wedge to the par-5 16th, pulling it slightly into a tree and leading to his second bogey of the round.

Thomas drilled a drive and was in perfect position with a 4-iron. But he sent that out to the right, trying to avoid a shot left of the green, and it bounced off a tree and into the creek. “Pathetic,” he said as he watched it sail to the right. “So afraid to hit it left.”

After the penalty drop, he had to play a marvellous pitch-and-run off hard pan to get up-and-down for par.

But he needed birdies, and that didn’t come for Thomas until he needed to hole out from the 18th fairway for an eagle. His approach landed 4 feet next to the hole for a birdie and a 69. It was his first birdie since the sixth hole.

“You could say a lot of things — making one birdie on my last 12 holes, shooting even par on the back nine, playing the par 5s 1 under,” Thomas said. “But I know I made a lot of really key putts when I felt like I needed to. But again, it just (stinks) when you’re right there and you don’t get it done.”

Cantlay has no weaknesses in his game except for the victory tally. He had gone for more than a year since his last victory, when he rallied from three behind at Muirfield Village to win the Memorial Tournament. His other win was in Las Vegas in 2017 when he came from four shots back and won in a playoff.

The win marked the third victory of Cantlay’s career, and the first in his home state of California. All three required making up deficits of three shots or more in the final round.

“I put in a lot of work and try to do the right things all the time,” said the American. “So when it all does come together, it’s really rewarding because it’s all that hard work paying off.”

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