NEW ORLEANS – Golf is predominantly an individual sport. An athletic pursuit that brings with it sacrifice in the form of hours of isolation in one’s formative years, searching to find the extra few percent that represents the difference between a decent player and someone who can earn a living from it.
Most players, perhaps without fully realizing it, form a bubble where only a handful of friends exist during the teenage years. Close friendships might be generated through the school golf team, but if personalities don’t click there either, it can be a lonely pursuit.
The PGA TOUR is full of friend groups and great relationships, to be sure. But when push comes to shove, players must look across the tee box with blinders on. That friend, while inside the ropes, is the foe. Ruthlessness is a prerequisite to success. It is why Tiger Woods was so dominant, particularly in his early years.
There are times in the elite golf calendar, though, where teamwork is important. Where players exit the bubble and find the fresh air, feelings and friendships. The Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup are the two biggest on the professional stage. And then there is the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
The tournament turned to a two-man team format in 2017, and the move has provided something fresh. Something fun. It allows players to share in something bigger than themselves.
Cameron Smith won in 2017 with Jonas Blixt, the housemate of his caddie Sam Pinfold and regular social outing partner in Jacksonville. He won again in 2021 with fellow Australian Marc Leishman; the two have a bond so close that the children of Leishman and caddie Matty Kelly call him “Uncle Cam.”
The latest duo to thrive in the Big Easy: FedExCup champion Patrick Cantlay and Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele. On Sunday, they capped off a record-setting performance, going wire-to-wire to win at TPC Louisiana. Their 29-under total included an opening 59 in Four-ball play and looked set to be a procession when a seventh-hole eagle reset a five-shot lead on Sunday.
But a couple of bogeys around the turn made things a little interesting, and the lead was cut briefly to one before normal order resumed. In the end, the margin was officially two shots over Billy Horschel and Sam Burns, but Cantlay and Schauffele never really seemed destined to do anything but win. They are, after all, great friends. The team ranks near the top of the “Strokes Gained: Friendship” metric, something Cantlay says, “certainly can’t hurt” when it comes to their partnership.
But how? They are both Southern California kids, but young Cantlay particularly was as singular-minded as they come. He was the world No. 1 amateur for more than a year, playing out of UCLA. Before he was a senior, he had won the Jack Nicklaus Award, Phil Mickelson Award, Haskins Award, Ben Hogan Award and McCormack Medal. In fact, while Schauffele remembers their first meeting at a college event, Cantlay’s recollection is sketchy at best. Schauffele, who is two years Cantlay’s junior and played at San Diego State, said Cantlay has no memory of it other than what others have told him.
“I remember it. I don’t think Pat really remembers it. He has this ability or strength to go into sort of an autopilot mode where not much fazes him, hence Patty Ice. He was kind of in Patty Ice mode at UCLA when we played,” Schauffele laughed. “I think he shot 65 and I shot 78, some
thing of that nature. I sat there and I was like, ‘This guy is a lot better than me at golf.’ That’s kind of what I thought at the time. It’s kind of funny, full circle, here we are.”
At this point, the usually quiet and reserved Cantlay lent into his microphone to interject and said he thought it might have been a 63.
“Sorry, 63. That sounds right, actually,” Schauffele added, feeding into his now-friend’s insular nature. “But he had me down for a 72 after the round. He handed me my card, and I was like, ‘I wish.’ He just had no clue what I shot.”
It wasn’t until the 2019 Presidents Cup, where the two were part of the U.S. team as rookies, that a real bond began to form. A forced team scenario allowed the growth of what is now set to be a lifelong camaraderie.
Sitting in a charter plane heading across the Pacific Ocean from the Bahamas to Melbourne, a 26-hour journey, the pair began playing a spirited game of gin rummy. Exactly how high the stakes were is the stuff of legend, according to their teammates, but the game seemed to never end. By the end, the two realized they had a lot in common, and assistant captain Fred Couples had noticed also. He recommended to captain Tiger Woods that they be paired together.
“I don’t think either of us would have gone out of their way to be friends with each other, but then spending that time together, we realized that we really got along with each other,” Cantlay said prior to last year’s Ryder Cup. “He’s incredibly smart, and incredibly conscientious. He is someone that probably brings out the best in me. He’s more positive, and he has a way of being lighter as opposed to me being serious. Yet he’s very quiet and reserved, so we kind of have that bond, and yet he balances me out a little bit.
“If we were at a regular tournament, there’s no way I would have spent time or gone out of my way to invest in a relationship with one of the other guys I was playing against. But now that he’s on my team and it might help me in my golf to get along with this guy, I realize that I really liked him as a person, and we’ve become great friends. That would probably be the best thing about weeks like this.”
On Sunday, when the big lead shrunk, there was no panic. No nerves showing. They just got back to work. The comfort factor was clear to see. No blame game anywhere to be seen.
“I definitely can be exactly myself with Xander, and I don’t think twice about it. He knows exactly who I am,” Cantlay added. “I think that really benefits both of us. We both feel like we can be exactly ourselves and don’t have to put anything extra on.”
Schauffele, who snapped a winless drought on TOUR of 1,204 days with a fifth title, said the fact he wasn’t sick of Cantlay after the infamous plane trip was the telltale sign that they should be mates.
“Usually when you spend a lot of time with someone, you sort of maybe stop liking them as much, and so Pat and I, we spent several hours playing cards. He kicked my ass, unfortunately,” Schauffele added after moving to 20th in the FedExCup. “But I didn’t stop liking him. And we’ve spent more and more time together and we’ve started to get along more and more. It kind of speaks to our friendship in that sense.”
The duo went 2-2 together in Melbourne, winning both Foursomes (alternate shot) matches, the same format they negotiated Friday and Sunday on the way to winning in New Orleans. When they reunited as a pair in the 2021 Ryder Cup, they played together only in Foursomes, but they promptly went 2-0 in those matches to stay undefeated in the format for the U.S. team.
Prior to the Ryder Cup, the two vacationed in Napa together with their significant others to further cement the bond. They recharged and made a point to celebrate the Olympic and FedExCup success each had earned. When they take their next trip – venue yet to be decided – they’ll toast to their success together.
“Anytime you can share success, I think that makes it just a little sweeter,” Cantlay said. “Shared enjoyment and shared success are just that much better.”
There’s no separating them now.
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