Rory McIlroy’s spicy Patrick Cantlay rematch reveals new U.S. Open rivals

joe lacava waves hat at rory mcilroy at ryder cup

Rory McIlroy will face a spicy old foe on Sunday at the U.S. Open: Patrick Cantlay.

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PINEHURST, N.C. — At the beginning of every major week, and particularly at the beginning of this major week, golf is trench warfare.

The enemies are everywhere: One-hundred and fifty-five of them dot the driving range every morning; five square miles of it fill the landscape surrounding you; 14 more fill the inside of your golf bag. The cause of your (very likely) demise could be anywhere, and could arrive at any moment. Meaningful progress comes slowly, tenuously, and sometimes not at all.

But then the sun begins to crest beneath the horizon early on Saturday evening, and the real war begins. The majority of the field has bowed out, and now only a few contenders remain, trading barbs in increasingly intimate settings. Before long, the field has whittled from 156 down to a half-dozen warriors. The business is very personal.

This is the drama that makes us love major championship golf, and on Sunday at the U.S. Open, it is the drama that will make us love watching Rory McIlroy. Because on Sunday at this U.S. Open, McIlroy will give us heavyweight slugfests against three of his bitterest rivals, starting with the one we’ve been waiting the better part of a year to witness: Cantlay/McIlroy II.

If McIlroy were to pick a golfer he’d most like to beat on Sunday for a U.S. Open, it’s a near-guarantee that Cantlay would be his selection. Not that the two don’t like each other, but well, the two don’t like each other.

Much of the beef can be tied back to the moment McIlroy and Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava nearly wound up in a fistfight on Saturday evening at the Ryder Cup last fall. Cantlay, you might remember, went on a hatless crusade to carry the United States back within a prayer of contention against McIlroy, pouring in a lengthy birdie putt on the last hole of the night to win the match outright. LaCava found himself enjoying a lengthy celebration that McIlroy felt infringed on his personal space. The two exchanged some words on the 18th green, then some more off to the side of the 18th green, and then some more still in a parking lot altercation that was inadvertently filmed by Golf Channel cameras.

McIlroy lost his mind that night, showed up the next morning with a terrifying look in his eyes and shredded his Sunday singles opponent (regrettably not Cantlay, for basic entertainment purposes) en route to a European Ryder Cup romp. It was, charitably speaking, the most dominant post-2014 performance of McIlroy’s professional career, and much of it was spurred on by Cantlay, who McIlroy appeared to mock on a few occasions on Ryder Cup Sunday.

In the months following those fraught moments in Rome, tensions continued to simmer in the McIlroy-Cantlay relationship, culminating with McIlroy’s unusually spicy assessment of the relationship to the Irish Independent’s Paul Kimmage.

“Here’s what angered me,” McIlroy said. “My relationship with Cantlay is average at best. We don’t have a ton in common and see the world quite differently. And they’re trying to defuse the situation, but I start having a go at them. Joe LaCava used to be a nice guy when he was caddying for Tiger, and now he’s caddying for that d–k, he’s turned into a … I still wasn’t in a great headspace.”

Barring something truly spectacular, there will not be a literal fistfight on Sunday at the U.S. Open, where both McIlroy and Cantlay enter four under and three shots back of the lead set by Bryson DeChambeau. But there will be the next best thing: Eighteen holes of golf between McIlroy and Cantlay with a major championship on the line. The two golfers and bitter rivals will tee off together on Sunday afternoon in the penultimate pairing at Pinehurst No. 2, going off at 2:10 p.m. local time, and some of McIlroy’s supporters are already rallying to his defense.

“It’ll be about how he stays patient and deals with the slow play of Patrick Cantlay tomorrow,” fellow Irishman Paul McGinley said on tonight’s Live From of McIlroy’s chances. “I think it was wrong today that the USGA didn’t step in there. Those last two groups were miles off the pace.”

A win against Cantlay would be deeply satisfying for McIlroy — and not only because it would mean vanquishing Cantlay’s at times … patient pace. But in some ways, it would be less satisfying than a win against the man both players are attempting to chase down: Bryson.

DeChambeau arrived at Pinehurst this week with his celebrity reaching critical mass. A brilliant, crowd-rousing performance at the PGA Championship engendered a Kentucky-sized slab of goodwill from the golf world, which suddenly realized it had done a 180 on the mercurial golfer who disappeared from the spotlight in two frustrating 2022 and 2023 seasons.

At the beginning of ’22, Bryson was overexposed in much the same way Rory is now — his personal life leaking into the tabloids, his relationship with the press wavering, his golf suffering. DeChambeau went to LIV and his profile dropped off the face of the earth. It might not have been the way he planned it, but the change helped both ways. Freed from the pressure of the limelight, Bryson gave himself room to mature — and the rest of the golf-watching world gave itself room to miss Bryson’s oafish tendencies.

“I tried to show everybody who I was. I didn’t do it the right way and could have done a lot of things better,” he admitted Saturday. “I’m lucky enough to have a great team around me to help me move in the right direction.”

In many ways, Bryson today represents McIlroy’s greatest desire in the public eye. No incessant talk about the future of the sport, no media obsession with his marriage — just genuine intrigue in his ability to (McIlroy’s words) hit a little white ball around a field.

The path to Bryson’s terms of endearment can take many shapes for Rory, but perhaps the simplest lies within his outstretched grasp on U.S. Open Saturday evening. Winning ails all, and a come-from-behind national championship victory exactly one year removed from a final-round failure would go a long way in sweeping the skeletons out of his closet.

The problem, though, is that McIlroy has been in this position too many times before, and too many times he has lost.

“I’m pretty much in the same position that I was last year going into the final day at LACC,” he said Saturday, admitting the Wyndham Clark-sized elephant in the room. “Been here many times before, and hopefully tomorrow I produce the golf that’s needed to go one better. No matter what happens — [whether I’m trailing by] two shots, three shots, four shots — I’ve got a great chance going into tomorrow.”

Or was it the Cameron Smith-sized elephant in the room? Or Charl Schwartzel? Or Francesco Molinari?

The point being: we’ve heard these platitudes from Rory before, and we’ve wondered if this time is different. With two new rivals and a new golf course on this U.S. Open Sunday, it is tempting to wonder the same.

But as it turns out, we’ve been asking the wrong question, because Rory winning the U.S. Open is not because of Patrick Cantlay or Bryson DeChambeau, Pinehurst No. 2 or an overly spinny draw. In fact, it has very little to do with golf altogether.

If Rory wins on Sunday at Pinehurst, it will be because of Wyndham Clark and Cameron Smith, Amen Corner and the Road Hole, swing tweaks and flukey putters. It will be because of the past and the present, because of fear and anxiety, because of failure and embarrassment.

And it will be these things because it will mean Rory has defeated the biggest, baddest opponent of all — the one who has cost him more wars than all the players, courses and clubs in the world.


James Colgan Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at

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