Patrick Cantlay’s Tour Championship breakthrough missed by an absent friend
Chris Roth was supposed to be his caddy for years to come until he was killed in a hit and run
Patrick Cantlay with his caddie Chris Roth during the the 2012 US Masters. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
With an 11-foot birdie putt on the last hole of the BMW Championship on Sunday, rookie Patrick Cantlay earned a spot in the PGA Tour’s 30-man season finale. It was a breakthrough that Cantlay and his close friend Chris Roth had imagined they would someday experience together.
Roth, a high school golf team-mate of Cantlay’s in Southern California, had caddied for him at the 2012 Masters, at the event in 2013 where he earned his first pro win, and at several tournaments in between. The plan had been for Roth to act as Cantlay’s wingman for years to come.
But when Cantlay closed with a one-under-par 70 at Conway Farms to finish tied for ninth at 12 under – 11 strokes behind Marc Leishman, the wire-to-wire winner – Roth’s parents were present, but Roth was not. Cantlay was one of two rookies to advance to the Tour Championship, joining Xander Schauffele, though that description did not feel entirely correct. He turned pro in 2012, a few months before Jordan Spieth did, and was the more-heralded professional prospect after spending a record 55 weeks as the top-ranked amateur in the world.
“He’s extremely talented, and he’s going to work his way up into the top 10 in the world, in my opinion,” Spieth told reporters after being paired with Cantlay for the third round of the second PGA Tour playoff event. When Cantlay, 25, won his first pro event in March 2013, at the Colombia Championship on the Web.com Tour, he finished seven strokes ahead of Spieth, who tied for fourth. But by the time Spieth won back-to-back Major titles in 2015, Cantlay was dealing with a back injury, later diagnosed as a stress fracture, that would restrict him to six Tour starts between June 2013 and January 2017.
In February 2016, within weeks of being advised by his doctor to stop playing for the year, Cantlay was walking across an intersection in Newport Beach, California, around 1am. He was a few feet behind Roth when his friend was struck by a car. Cantlay summoned the police and then supported Roth, who was unconscious, in his arms until an ambulance arrived. Roth, 24, was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
The driver, who had fled the area, was arrested several hours later. She pleaded guilty to felony hit and run, according to Roth’s mother, Michelle, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Cantlay said he would never be able to shake the image of the accident. But he is trying to move on. “It sounds silly because it wasn’t that long ago,” Cantlay said, “but I’ve had some time to reflect on it, and I have fond memories of Chris, obviously.”
He paused, as if thoughts were forming like cumulus clouds in his head. “Yeah,” he added, softly. The BMW Championship was Cantlay’s 12th start of the season, and he has abbreviated his schedule to preserve his back. The Tour Championship, which begins this Thursday, will be just the second time this season that Cantlay has played in consecutive weeks. But he has been efficient, making the cut in every tournament he entered. In his second start back, he finished second, and in his fourth, he tied for third place.
“I feel like taking a more limited schedule allows you to really bring it and give it your fullest attention when you do play,” he said. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am this year was Cantlay’s first tournament since November 2014, and it happened to coincide with the first anniversary of Roth’s death. Roth’s parents attended that event to support Cantlay, and they have continued showing up as their schedules permit.
Luke List, who finished tied for 20th here, employed Roth as his caddie for several months while Cantlay was sidelined. “I’m so glad Chris’ parents come out,” List said. “I think a little bit of Chris is with Patrick.” Roth’s parents hung back as Cantlay played the 7,208-yard layout Sunday. During his third round, they had peeled away for the exit with one hole left because, as Michelle Roth explained, “Patrick’s not here to entertain us. We don’t want to bother him.”
She added, “I’m not sure it helps him having us here, and I worry that it hinders him because it makes him remember Chris.” Cantlay dismissed those concerns. “I’m just happy to have them here,” he said, adding, “They really just remind me of someone who was a great guy.”
After Cantlay hit an approach shot on the par-four seventh to within four feet of the pin, Roth’s father, Gary, exclaimed, “That a kid!” A marshal on the green asked the Roths, “You guys part of Patrick’s family?” Rather than explain the bond, Roth’s father opted for expediency: “Yeah,” he replied.
Gary Roth occasionally dines with Cantlay in Long Beach, California, but he said there were two subjects they never broach: golf and Chris. “Sometimes it’s just a comfortable quiet,” Roth’s father said, adding, “Unfortunately, Patrick’s had to grow up way quicker than he needed to.”
After his birdie putt on 18, Cantlay walked toward the scoring area, where he was met by his swing coach, Jamie Mulligan. Cantlay motioned to Roth’s parents behind a barrier a few yards away. “Gary and Michelle are right there,” he told Mulligan, who walked over to Roth’s father and exchanged fist bumps.
Twenty minutes later, it was official: Cantlay had advanced to the Tour Championship. Roth’s parents left for the trip back to Long Beach, and Cantlay headed to Atlanta. Though headed their separate ways, they will always be united by their greatest loss. New York Times news service