The story behind Patrick Cantlay, ‘HatGate’ and a Ryder Cup gone mad
ROME — The fans knew something Patrick Cantlay didn’t.
To understand why Rory McIlroy was dragged yelling from the Marco Simone parking lot, to understand why Joe LaCava was screaming at Shane Lowry on the 18th green, to understand why thousands upon thousands of European fans were waving their hats at Cantlay and to understand why a 43-foot putt sparked so much emotion, that’s a good place to start:
The fans knew something Cantlay didn’t.
Saturday at the Ryder Cup dawned with a yawn. Team Europe began the day with a five-point lead and quickly added to it; midway through the morning’s matches it seemed they’d smothered any remaining drama from the weekend’s competition.
But, at the risk of spoiling what happened next … they hadn’t.
What followed was half-golf match, half-Black Mirror episode. It was a sequence of events that only could have happened in this sport, at this tournament, at this moment in golf history. And by day’s end, as Cantlay was staring down must-make putts in the fading light of an idyllic Italian evening, fans were treated to one of the most surreal hours in the game’s recent memory.
And it all began with a hat.
Or, more accurately, without one.
THE REPORT came out just before 11 a.m. local time — that’s 5 a.m. ET — and it was a bombshell.
“Understand from several sources that the US team room is fractured, a split led predominantly by Patrick Cantlay,” wrote Sky Sports’ Jamie Weir on Twitter. “Cantlay believes players should be paid to participate in the Ryder Cup, and is demonstrating his frustration at not being paid by refusing to wear a team cap.”
Weir added that Cantlay, the World No. 5, had “refused to attend the gala dinner earlier in the week” and, alongside good friend Xander Schauffele, “is sitting in a separate area of the team dressing room.” Weir also cited Cantlay and Schauffele as the duo who had pushed to keep Netflix cameras from the U.S. team room, too.
Golf fans are always eager to seize on any shred of drama, but a report of a ”fracture” led by one of the players in this particular setting — the talented American squad suffering a beatdown on European soil — was a match dropped on a kerosene-soaked newspaper.
So was it true?
The assembled media members went into overdrive chasing questions raised by the report. Some of it was difficult to parse. There’s only one locker room, after all. How far away could they have been sitting? Does a team room that exists for less than a week have enough time to fracture by Saturday morning? How does Cantlay feel about Ryder Cuppers not being paid? And what was up with the hat, anyway?!
In some ways the specific details and their respective veracity were irrelevant to the assembled masses. To fans, Cantlay tends toward the unknowable and, to casuals, has gotten more attention for viral slow-play clips than consistent top-tier golf. In other words, he can be an easy target. The idea that an American villain was debasing the sanctity of the Ryder Cup out of personal greed? They could work with that.
WORD SPREAD faster than you might think. The Italian countryside may be a world of its own, but given that tens of thousands of iPhoned attendees with reasonably reliable cell reception were clustered around just four matches, Telephone was an easy game to play.
Soon Cantlay and Schauffele were competing in the only morning match still on course, locked in a showdown against European stalwarts Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton. It was already happening: chatter about the U.S. team room could be heard around the 15th green as Cantlay surveyed a crucial bogey putt. He buried that to tie the hole, tie the match and silence the crowd in the process. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Two holes later, with Europe already 1 up, Rahm nearly aced the par-3 17th, sending the crowd into triumphant celebration. But then Cantlay stepped to his ball and striped an iron shot to four feet. The U.S. team would lose the match but that moment, too, was a harbinger of things to come.
It might seem silly to think that Cantlay could finish one match and start another without learning why he had suddenly become the event’s main character. But afternoon pairings were released as he played the 16th hole and by the time Cantlay’s morning match finished, the afternoon session was about to begin. Cantlay is hardly a guy to reflexively check Twitter during a few minutes’ break, either; he doesn’t even have social media on his phone. So as he walked through the tunnel and onto the first tee alongside new partner Wyndham Clark, he faced a mob of fans armed with new ammo — and more than eager to put it to use.
In understanding what happened at day’s end it’s important understand the vitriol that followed Cantlay throughout his afternoon round. That’s not a critique of the European fans; the madness and meaning of the Ryder Cup comes from the passion of its spectators, and for all the creative cruelty of the home crowd, they’re respectful of maintaining silence in the moments before a player hits. But everything else is fair game, which makes the area inside the ropes is a pressure cooker. And it was relentless for Cantlay.
The match was a near-stalemate for much of the day before a McIlroy birdie at No. 14 put them 1 up. Pars at No. 15 meant Europe was 1 up heading to the drivable par-4 16th, Marco Simone’s greatest amphitheater, theirs now the only remaining match on the course.
ALL OF TEAM EUROPE stood long and left of the 16th green, still buzzing from their comrades’ defeat of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth just moments before. The giddy assembled watched in awe as McIlroy’s soaring 3-wood tracked toward the front of the green, where it pitched to massive applause. He’d have 30 feet for eagle.
Cantlay played next; his tee shot stayed too far left and came to rest in the greenside bunker some 30 yards from a back-left pin. Then he began a walk unlike any he’d ever experienced. I’m not sure how to estimate exactly how many spectators ringed the short par-4 — 10,000? More? — but before long a majority had doffed their caps and begun whirling them above their heads in his honor. Chants of Ole, Ole Ole Ole soon gave way to something more specific:
For your bank account
For your bank account
It’s not clear if Cantlay could understand their words. Even if he did, he might not have understood their meaning. The player and the onlookers were operating in parallel universes. In theirs, a vague report had spread so quickly it had permeated the entire crowd and reshaped the stakes of the match. They’d literally created a new song in real time. As Cantlay made his way down the hill, every eye and cap and voice pointed in his direction, the pressure could have broken a lesser spirit. How are you supposed to handle that?
But as he drew closer to the green it became clear that moment wasn’t too much for Cantlay; he was grinning. He gave a glance to the crowd. He added a little bow. He hit his bunker shot to 10 feet. He made the putt. He gave a little fist pump; that was enough to tie McIlroy’s birdie and enough to stay 1 down with two to play.
On the 17th tee, after the rest of his group missed the green, Cantlay rose to the occasion again. He kept his characteristic tempo and flighted one that never left the flag before settling to 10 feet. He made that, too. Suddenly the match was tied. The masses rushed to the par-5 18th; several dozen broke contain and streamed across the fairway.
By the time the foursome arrived at the final green the sun was making its final descent into the horizon line beyond, a fiery end to a spectacular evening.
All four golfers faced lengthy birdie tries. Clark played first and nestled a putt from the fringe to three feet to clear the stage for his partner. Next, Cantlay studied his line. He stepped up from 43 feet. The preceding 10-footers had seemed remarkable; this was unthinkable. The same 18th green that had delivered triumphant moments to three European teams the evening before now delivered the biggest yet to the U.S. side.
What happened next has been detailed extensively elsewhere but, as someone looking on from beside the green, struck me as something I’d never quite seen in this job. There were Cantlay’s American teammates, hats above their heads, reclaiming the European fans’ celebration. There was LaCava, Cantlay’s caddie, no doubt experiencing a moment of extra release after a full day’s mistreatment, holding the celebration one beat too long, then another beat too long and then — wait, what was that?
The actual confrontation between LaCava and McIlroy happened quickly. The Northern Irishman didn’t take kindly to LaCava’s celebratory presence beside his line and eventually made that clear. LaCava didn’t take kindly to his removal; he barked at McIlroy and then at McIlroy’s caddie Harry Diamond and then at Shane Lowry, who was incensed on his buddy’s behalf from the rear of the green. When McIlroy’s putt wandered by and Fitzpatrick’s did, too, the match was over, 1 up. Europe’s lead still shoot at five points, 10.5-5.5, a comfy home-team margin. But the entire tenor of the tournament had changed.
CANTLAY LED A GROUP of a half-dozen U.S. Ryder Cuppers through the hostile remainder of the European crowd; Lowry was hardly the only onlooker to take exception to the ending. When they took to the podium in the nearby media center it was clear what the assembled reporters wanted addressed — and what Cantlay wanted to share.
The second question got straight to the point. Do you believe Ryder Cuppers should be paid?
“It’s not about that. It’s just about Team USA and representing our country,” he said.
Can you answer the question?
“That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Why no hat?
“The hat doesn’t fit. It didn’t fit at Whistling Straits, and didn’t fit this week. Everyone knows that,” he said, calling the report “the furthest thing from the truth.”
He’d noticed the attention, he said, but didn’t understand its source until his manager had briefed him just off the 18th green.
As for team dynamics?
Brian Harman jumped in.
“Y’all just don’t quit, do ya,” he said. “We love each other, man. It’s been the most fun getting to hang out with these boys. Whatever happens tomorrow, I mean, love you boys.”
“Love you too, Harm,” Cantlay said.
“Think you’re putting too much into the hat,” Clark added with a grin.
As the U.S. team wrapped its press conference, walked up the chute and turned into the team room, two great ironies hung in the air behind them.
The first: If Cantlay has been making an argument for players receiving Ryder Cup pay, it’s likely because those players are the ones generating the attention and the eyeballs. But Friday was likely the greatest attention-generating day of Cantlay’s entire life.
The second: If the report was correct and there had been some sort of rift forming in the U.S. locker room, this entire sequence served to bring the team together. It’s not often you’ll get a professional golfer whipping his hat above his head on behalf of a fellow player. Making 43-footers is a pretty good way to build team-room morale.
WHAT WE KNOW still has its gaps.
I have little doubt that Cantlay believes players should be compensated for their Ryder Cup appearances. In his first year on the PGA Tour’s Policy Board he has made it clear that he is pro-player and has continually and unapologetically sought to ensure pros are getting what he thinks they deserve. But fighting for Ryder Cup pay (rather than just a charitable donation) would hardly make him unpopular among fellow pros, plenty of whom appreciate the fact that he’ll go to bat on their behalf. They’ve even rallied to his defense before; Scottie Scheffler, Rickie Fowler and Max Homa were among the teammates that posted in his defense after a Golfweek article caused a stir this July.
What’s more, Cantlay and Schauffele are frequent practice-round playing partners of Burns, Scheffler, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. He’s among the most successful and longest-tenured members of said team room. And without being there it’d be tough to determine any level of fracture. Losing all those guys at once would just feel a bit sudden.
Still, it’s never particularly easy to get a group of professional golfers pulling all in the same direction. There’s plenty of reason for discord in the U.S. room, particularly after illness and defeat. Cantlay did attend the team gala but skipped out early after pictures, citing a desire to get some rest. His singular style may not always mesh well with the group at large. The fact that he and Schauffele skipped the team scouting trip did him no favors, either, nor did the hubbub around the Netflix show and its permission slips.
That much we know. We also know that Cantlay stared down the entire European team and its entire fan base, too. We know he took just nine strokes to play the day’s final three holes. We know just how unlikely that 43-footer really was.
Now we know that Cantlay goes off third for the U.S. team in Sunday singles. We know that McIlroy will tee it up one match behind him. And we know to remember days like this, because they don’t come along often.
The author (cautiously) welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.