The back nine of Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course is a treacherous place. Six holes measure 460 yards or more. Water encroaches on three of them. And, for good measure, there are 44 steep bunkers. All that’s missing, it seems, is a windmill and pond full of alligators.
Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson both found the water here. The holes chewed up the world’s top-ranked player, Luke Donald, with four bogeys and one double-bogey in the first round of the U.S. Open.
But along came a 19-year-old amateur from California in Friday’s second round who made the back nine look as challenging as a pitch-and-putt course.
Patrick Cantlay, who will be a sophomore at UCLA this fall, recorded five birdies on the back nine to finish with a 4-under 67. Cantlay looked calm, as he methodically worked his way through the holes that befuddled some of the world’s best golfers. Fearless may be a better word.
“That’s what he wants you to think,” said Dane Jako, Cantlay’s coach at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif. Jako has caddied for Cantlay since he was a high school freshman, including last year’s second-place finish at the U.S. Amateur.
“I was not quite feeling that way inside,” Cantlay said, then caught himself and insisted he was calm and comfortable.
The round gave Cantlay a two-day score of even-par 142, good enough to make the cut for the weekend. Even McIlroy, running away with the U.S. Open, hasn’t tamed the back nine like Cantlay. McIlroy shot 34 there Thursday, four strokes off Cantlay’s mark.
The birdie barrage commenced on No. 10 — a fiendish par three that wraps right around water that attracts balls like magnets — with a 25-foot putt. Birdies followed on No. 11 and 12. That left him at ease on the greens softened up by a night of thunderstorms.
After each hole, Cantlay exchanged good-luck fist-bumps with his 7-year-old brother, Jack.
Under a wide blue hat that blocked the afternoon’s bright sun, Colleen Cantlay tried to share her elder son’s calm.
“I have to tell myself, ‘Watch him ride the roller coaster, but don’t ride with him,’” she said. “He’s very sure of himself. There’s hope for any parent who has a strong-willed child.”
The crowd grew so thick that Colleen Cantlay and her husband, Steve, couldn’t see the putts on some holes. Some kids snuck in periscopes. The Cantlays relied on the crowd’s reaction, drawing out the tension.
Cantlay’s confidence was tested on No. 16, when his long putt for birdie rolled … and rolled … and rolled. The ball slowed to a crawl. His family shouted. Cantlay held out his hand, as if to beg the ball to drop. It did.
More fans trickled over to see the wisp of a kid — listed at 160 pounds — with the red number next to his name on the scoreboard play No. 17. Cantlay’s iron shot from the fairway stopped where it landed — three feet from the pin. An easy putt collected his fifth birdie.
Though Cantlay received a standing ovation from the bleachers while walking on the floating bridge to the clubhouse after No. 18, he acted like this experience isn’t out of the ordinary. The family ate at Maggiano’s the other night. He sleeps without trouble. Questions about turning pro leave him with an incredulous look on his face, the same one thousands of spectators shared when he took the fear out the back nine.