These two instructors helped Patrick Cantlay become one of the best on the PGA Tour

For some golfers, geography more than anything brought them into contact with golf.

The home of World Golf Hall of Fame member Lee Trevino, for instance, was situated roughly 100 yards from the seventh fairway at the Dallas Athletic Club and a young Trevino used to walk through the course to get to school and sell balls he found in the thick rough back to the slicers who hit them there. The rest is history.

Patrick Cantlay didn’t grow up next to a golf course in Long Beach, California, but rather benefited from a country club membership and the members and staff who nurtured his love for the game.

Cantlay benefited greatly from having not one, but two able teachers at his disposal. Jamie Mulligan, who has been at Virginia Country Club since 2000 and has the title of CEO, knew Cantlay’s grandfather, who was a good golfer with a putting green in his backyard that he mowed himself, and played golf with him back in the 1980s when he originally was an assistant at Virginia CC. Cantlay’s dad became club champion there. Patrick was no more than eight years old when he developed an insatiable love of the game.

“I can’t think of a time when I didn’t play golf,” Cantlay says.

Special from the start

At junior clinics, Mulligan, the 2021 PGA of America Teacher and Coach of the Year, would ask his students to aim and throw a ball at a tree, and whoever was the closest to it would win a candy bar. A hundred kids would try to whip it as hard as they could like Nolan Ryan. Only Cantlay took a different tact.

2011 Open

2011 Open

Patrick Cantlay watches his tee shot on the 15th hole during the first round of the 2011 Open at CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin, California. (Photo: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports)

“Patrick rolled one that just followed the contours of the ground and kept going and rolled up right next to the root. What is that? You can’t coach that, right?” Mulligan says.

Cantlay played baseball and basketball, too, until high school when he realized his skills no longer were developing at the same pace as his teammates.

“I was short and skinny yet at the same time I was getting better compared to everyone else at golf,” he recalls. “It was an easy decision to focus on golf.”

Mulligan made sure Cantlay excelled at the core fundamentals while assistant pro Mike Miles, who played for a stint on the PGA Tour, introduced him to the importance of simply getting the golf ball in the hole. “He would put the ball in the trees and say, ‘What are we going to do from here?’ ” Cantlay recalls. “Between the two of them, I had a really good idea of what it would take to play on Tour from a game perspective.”

Mulligan credits Miles with pushing him towards a career in teaching based on the fact that he says he could never beat him; Miles ran into his own buzzsaw, one of Southern California’s finest, John Cook, who went on to win 11 times on the PGA Tour.

“That was a pretty good barometer,” Mulligan says. “I could beat everyone else but I couldn’t beat those guys.”

Mulligan and Miles became Cantlay’s Ying and Yang, longtime friends who made a pact: neither would step into the others bailiwick when it came to training Cantlay.

“We don’t speak the same language when it comes to the golf swing but we see the same thing in how they can be designed,” Miles says. “I came from a background of playing and Jamie had been an instructor already for years. I would teach him what I knew about playing and Jamie would take it from the other side of technique, training and coaching. That was 10 through high school. By that time, when Patrick got to UCLA he was a fully formed golfer at that point.”

‘His drive is next gear’

Both recognized that Cantlay had the makings of a great champion and molded him into one of the best PGA Tour pros of the past five years.

“His drive is next gear and he had it at age 10,” Miles says. “He used to walk out on the first tee at Virginia at that age and challenge the old guys. He’d call them his soup group, guys in their late 60s, early 70s. He’d carry his bag and they’d be in their carts and he’d end up in the restaurant eating soup with them. He’s been an old country club player since he was 10. Maybe that’s why he looks a little sour.”

Cantlay also was blessed to grow up surrounded by Tour talent. Mulligan’s stable of pros who sought his wisdom included Cook and Paul Goydos and then a second generation of Tour caliber players in John Mallinger, John Merrick and Peter Tomasulo who treated him like a younger brother. As if by osmosis, Cantlay became a hybrid of all those golfers he looked up to, a blend of old school and new school. Miles agrees that Cantlay’s environment was invaluable to his growth as a player.

2023 U.S. Open

2023 U.S. Open

Patrick Cantlay plays a shot from a bunker on the 12th hole during the first round of the 2023 U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. (Photo: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)

“He’s a question asker. He’ll ask 100 questions about a topic,” Miles says. “The way Patrick takes information in and absorbs it and distills it and implements it there probably wasn’t a better player to be in that environment and get more out of it.”

He beat Mulligan’s older students earlier than they expected him to do so. Tomasulo, who was at Cal before spending several years on the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour, still remembers the first time Cantlay shot 30 on the back nine to beat him. “I was like, whoa, this kid’s getting really good,” Tomasulo says.

Indeed, when Cantlay enrolled at UCLA over USC, where his parents attended, he remembers thinking that he’d schooled way better golfers than he faced at the college level.

It was Cook that Cantlay looked up to the most. As a child prodigy, Cook took lessons from World Golf Hall of Fame member and former CBS Sports golf analyst Ken Venturi. He was a fountain of knowledge and never charged Cook or his father for a single lesson.

“My dad tried to pay him numerous times, but he refused,” Cook says. “He had only one stipulation. He said when you find someone who could use this help, it’s your duty to pass it on.”

Jamie Mulligan (left) and Mike Miles at The Yards in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

And pass it on, he did. Cook showed Cantlay how to practice with a purpose, including to shag his own balls so he could see patterns instead of relying on TrackMan numbers.

“Being around the guys at the club did wonders for me,” Cantlay says. “Cookie, he’d tell me how he tried to hit the ball specific distances by flighting it certain levels. It gave me a better way to focus and kept me out of the trap of just beating balls. Being surrounded by those guys helped me strive to be better in ways that I didn’t even know were what I should be striving to do.”

In 2011, Cantlay qualified for the U.S. Open. It was his PGA Tour debut at Congressional Country Club, and Venturi, who won the national title there in 1964, was on hand to present the trophy. That week, Cantlay’s great promise was on display to a national audience as he became the first amateur to shoot par or better at the U.S. Open since Jack Nicklaus. For winning low amateur honors, Cantlay received a medal at the trophy presentation from none other than Venturi.

2011 U.S. Open

2011 U.S. Open

Amateur Patrick Cantlay with his caddie during the second round of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 17, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

“Ken was dressed to the nines in a blue blazer,” Mulligan remembers. “I said, ‘Patrick I want to introduce you to Ken Venturi. Mr. Venturi, this is…’ and he finished my sentence. He said, ‘I know this is Patrick Cantlay. What a lovely player you are and are going to become. I understand my friend John Cook along with Jamie have been mentoring you. I got this information from Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and I gave it to John and it sounds like he’s passed it on to the right guy.’ ”

A week later, Cantlay held the 36-hole lead at the Travelers after shooting 60, the lowest score by an amateur. When a reporter asked Goydos if he thought Cantlay, who was just a sophomore at UCLA, should stay at school or turn pro, Goydos cracked, “I think he should get his masters.”

“Flukes can happen. I mean, I shot 59. But the 60 wasn’t a fluke. The fluke was that he didn’t win,” Goydos says all these years later. “I look at the player Patrick is now and I’m glad I’m on the Champions Tour.”

From two-time BMW Championship winner to 2020-21 FedEx Cup champion and perennial member of U.S. cup teams, Cantlay has proven to be everything Mulligan and Miles envisioned him to be, and the best may be yet to come. Winning candy bars, it turned out, was just the beginning for Cantlay.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek

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