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Cantlay has come a long way at Pebble Beach in 3 years

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Patrick Cantlay had a different set of expectations when he played the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am three years ago.

“In a weird way, it was an accomplishment to finish a golf tournament,” he said.

Cantlay had been away from golf for nearly three years because of a spinal stress fracture that made him wonder if he would ever be able to play golf without pain. So it was satisfying to have made the cut and thrilling to not hurt doing it. Never mind that he tied for 48th, 16 shots behind the winner.

“When you're out that long, it's reasonable to have doubts about your game or how you're going to hold up,” Cantlay said Tuesday. “Yeah, it wasn't exactly what I wanted and I felt like I could have played better. But I was happy about making the cut and playing as well as I did, and it gave me confidence going forward that I hadn't really lost much and I was still the player that I used to be.”

That now seems like a long time ago. Cantlay still considers Pebble Beach the start of his comeback, but that phase ended when he reached the Tour Championship that year despite playing only 11 tournaments — only one of them a major (PGA Championship) and no World Golf Championships.

Now he is No. 8 in the world and rarely satisfied if he's not contending.

“That first year felt like kind of a comeback and then after that, I felt really confident and comfortable playing out on tour and I didn't really associate the next two years with a comeback, more a resumption of just me playing tournament golf," he said.

Cantlay is playing with Kelly Slater. Cantlay grew up in Long Beach and never really took to the waves, except for once. And that was enough.

“I try everything once, twice if you like it. But I didn't like it,” he said. “I wasn't very good at it. And for me to keep doing things that I'm not very good at takes a lot of will power.”

His other sports were baseball and basketball, but not for long.

“I was good enough to make the All-Star team and pitch and play shortstop when I was about 8 or 10,” he said. “And by the time I was 13, I was playing right field. So I figured it was my time to exit.”

CHINA CHANGE

The PGA Tour Series-China is the latest tour to cancel an event in China because of the coronavirus.

The tour is moving its global qualifying tournament from Haikou, China, to just outside Singapore. Laguna Golf Bintan will host the qualifer on Feb. 25-28, which determines membership for the 2020 season. Players were notified Tuesday.

"We felt this change was the best course of action considering what's happening in China right now," said Greg Carlson, executive director of the China tour.

The China tour already held the first of its three qualifying tournaments a month ago in Guangzhou, which was for Chinese passport holders. The other two qualifiers are for players outside mainland China. Along with the next one in Singapore, the other is scheduled for March 3-6 in Thailand.

The China series is to begin March 26-29 in Sanya, China. The tour said it was monitoring the situation to see how it would affect the start of the season.

GMAC IN THE TOP 50

Graeme McDowell is back in the top 50 for the first time since early summer in 2015, and it felt like a long road back.

He reached No. 47 with his victory in the Saudi International against a field that featured Dustin Johnson (the runner-up), Brooks Koepka, Shane Lowry and Henrik Stenson.

At this time a year ago, McDowell was No. 262 in the world. He ended last year at No. 121. The goal was top 50, and it felt like a pretty big mountain.

“It feels unbelievably far away. It really does,” McDowell said. “I think I was in the top 50 for five, six years. And when you're on the outside looking in ... it feels like an awfully long way away.”

Making it feel even longer is that McDowell wasn't in any of the World Golf Championships since Match Play in 2016.

Now, the goal is to stay there.

He is assured of being in the WGC-Mexico Championship in two weeks. He has to stay among the top 64 over the next month to play in the WGC-Dell Match Play. After the Match Play, the top 50 earn invitations to the Masters. He already is exempt for the U.S. Open, and his world ranking will get him into the PGA Championship.

Two years ago, the only major he played was the U.S. Open. He has a 10-year exemption from his 2010 victory at Pebble.

“Just to be back in those, I think I'll appreciate them a lot more this time around,” McDowell said. “I think that's probably the biggest thing the last three or four years was just realizing that you're not invincible and that this sport is very fickle and it will go away some day. I think I tasted that little bit of mortality probably this time last year.

“I realized that if I ever got the chance again,” he said, "that I was going to work hard and do the best that I possibly could with that opportunity.”

RORY'S TURN

This will be the 11th consecutive year without a player starting the year at No. 1 and staying there until the end.

Brooks Koepka began his latest run at No. 1 when he won the PGA Championship last May. But with too much time off with injury late last year, and the surge by Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 ranking is about to change hands.

According to a world ranking expert who goes by “Nosferatu” on Twitter, McIlroy returns to No. 1 next week for the first time since September 2015.

Neither Koepka nor McIlroy are playing this week. Both will be at Riviera the following week.

It will be the eighth time McIlroy goes to No. 1, and the third straight time he gets there without playing the week before.

DIVOTS

Bill Fields will receive the PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. He spent the bulk of his career with Golf World magazine as a writer, editor and photographer. ... Inbee Park, Hannah Green and Geoff Ogilvy headline the field this week in Australia for the ISPS Handa Vic Open, where men and women compete in separate tournaments on the same course for the same amount of prize money. ... The top three finishers at the Saudi International — Graeme McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson — are all playing at Pebble Beach this week. ... The PGA Tour's six circuits raised a record $204.3 million for charity in 2019, surpassing the $3 billion mark all-time.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson each have 14 PGA Tour victories in their home state of California.

FINAL WORD

“When the sun shines, there's no better place on the golfing planet to be.” — Graeme McDowell, who flew from Saudi Arabia to the Monterey Peninsula for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

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