PINEHURST — On Wednesday afternoon, I had what seemed like an interesting idea for a Round 1 column from U.S. Open. I wanted to walk with Patrick Cantlay and try to understand why he plays such uninspiring golf in major championships.

That summation wasn’t personal, nor was it conjecture. It is essentially fact.

Despite the fact that Cantlay has been ranked in the Top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings for three years — rising as high as No. 3 at one point — he’s only climbed into contention during a major once: The 2019 Masters. He eagled the 15th hole that day to hold the outright lead, then immediately bogeyed the next two holes, ejecting from the conversation. Five years later, he hasn’t gotten back into the mix, especially on a weekend.

Cantlay has won big tournaments (the Memorial in 2019 and ‘21; the BMW and Tour Championship in ‘21) and was a Ryder Cup menace for the United States in Italy. But majors have clearly been the soft underbelly in his resume. After finishing T-9 at the Masters and T-3 at the PGA Championship in 2019, he’s had just two Top 10 finishes, both of them occurring when he was well out of contention.

Why, I wondered, does someone who is clearly one of best golfers on the planet consistently come up small on the sport’s biggest stage?

Thursday was a nice reminder that narratives are always subject to change, and that past results aren’t necessarily indicative of future performance. I had a front-row seat for one of Cantlay’s best rounds in years, watching him surgically pick apart Pinehurst No. 2 and shoot 65. He hit a towering high draw into the 8th hole to set up his sixth birdie of the day I’ll still be thinking about later this evening. Cantlay — just being honest here — is usually not particularly exciting or fun to watch, but he was hypnotic on Thursday. He hit decent off the tee (+0.47 SG) and hit darts with his irons (+2.53 SGA), and chipped exceptionally (+3.84 ATG). He holed out from the bunker for birdie on No. 11 (his second hole of the day), setting the tone for his morning. He was a tremendous sum of his skills.

How the heck did this version of Cantlay suddenly reappear?

Just a week ago, he shot 75-76 to miss the cut at the Memorial.

“I've been working really hard on my game, and usually when you make just a couple changes and you're working really hard, it's just a matter of time,” Cantlay said.

I have lobbed my share of criticism at Cantlay over the last year, and it would be disingenuous not to bring it up here. I have called him a house cat, I have criticized his slow play, I have said he sucks the joy out of watching pro golf by playing rounds that feel about as joyless as a four-hour meeting with human resources. But I’ve never questioned his talent. I’ve never seen someone putt better than Cantlay did down the stretch when he outlasted Bryson DeChambeau at Caves Valley for the 2021 BMW Championship. If a player is going to annoy you, it’s a lot more interesting if he’s also a killer between the ropes. (See: Reed, Patrick)

Cantlay’s shot into No. 8 at Pinehurst No. 2 — which he hit to four feet from 176 yards, to a pin where you cannot miss long or left — reminded me of some of the shots he hit in Italy at the Ryder Cup, when he fed off the crowd’s negative energy and a report that he was going hatless to protest players not getting paid. It was cold-blooded, and he saw it similarly when I asked him about it.

“It was good,” Cantlay said, a wry smile on his face. “It was a little left of where I was aiming. But that’s why you aim in the right spot.”

In 2024, Cantlay has made more news off the course than he has on it, with sources indicating that he is perhaps the most powerful voice in the room among PGA Tour players who are tapped with trying to negotiate a deal with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. Very few people seem to know what Cantlay wants or what he thinks in the negotiations, only that he has been a fierce protector of PGA Tour players’ interests, and that he feels management has, to this point, failed them with many of their maneuvers.

“I do feel a responsibility to do the right thing for the membership and do my best in my capacity as a Policy Board member,” Cantlay said in March at The Players. “That's really the driving force, driving force behind all the decisions I make on that front.”

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This might be unfair, but over the last year, it has baffled me at times that someone who has such an important role in shaping the future of golf has been such an inconsequential entity on the game’s biggest stages. Even on the PGA Tour, his strength is his consistency. His highs rarely match other players' highs. In seven years on Tour, he’s won eight times, yet he’s climbed as high as No. 3 in the OWGR, and that was before numerous players departed for LIV.

I probably shouldn’t feel that way — after all, Cantlay’s strengths in the boardroom don’t depend on his ability to hit a 7 iron — but it felt like a weird disconnect. Fans aren’t coming out in droves to see Cantlay play golf. Even when he plays well, he has the personality of a middle manager at a consulting firm. One prominent agent told me last year that any fan paying to watch Cantlay play golf would be like someone paying to watch Mission Impossible to see the extras, not Tom Cruise. It didn’t make any sense.

This is the man who will likely decide what golf looks like for the next decade?

It was easy to forget about whether any of that mattered for five hours on Thursday. For the first time in five years, Cantlay has a chance to matter in a major. No guarantee he’ll still be there come Sunday, but if he is, his thousand-yard stare, his sloth-like pace of play, and the maddening way he wiggles his feet for centuries as he prepares to putt, it all becomes good theater if he’s in the thick of it instead of 10 shots off the lead.

Let’s welcome him to the party. Yes, it took him forever to get here. It often does.

But at least now, all those quirks seem interesting.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.

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