Special season for golfer Patrick Cantlay

Whether he knew it or not, Patrick Cantlay has been groomed for golfing success from about the time he was nine years old.

He grew up playing and practicing with pro golfers, so it should come as no surprise that in less than a year at UCLA, he's emerged as the Bruins top golfer and one of the top college golfers in the nation.

Cantlay, a UCLA freshman, hopes to add to his already impressive resume when he leads the No. 2 Bruins into the Pac-10 championship beginning Friday at Stanford.

He has won three tournaments already this year -- tied for most among Division I golfers -- and he is the No. 3 ranked player in the Golfweek individual rankings. His scoring average of 70.74 is fourth in the nation and he has finished among the top three in six of the nine tournaments he's played this season.

Those results have made him one of the 10 semifinalists for the Ben Hogan Award given to the nation's top college golfer (the only freshman to make the top 10) and earned him a spot on the Palmer Cup team that pits the top U.S. college golfers against the top college players from Europe in a Ryder Cup style competition.

He is also in the running for a spot on the Walker Cup, a similar team competition open to all amateurs that is among the highest accolades an amateur player can achieve.

"I knew he would be a very good golfer," UCLA coach Derek Freeman said. "That’s why I recruited him. His background, his pedigree, his work ethic. That was the type of kid I wanted on my team. But for us to think he was going to go out and win three events, be in the running for all these awards, have a chance for Walker Cup, making Palmer Cup—that’s pretty special. It doesn’t matter what year you are."

Special indeed, but not altogether surprising given Cantlay's background.

He's been playing golf pretty much since he could walk, but about 10 years ago -- at the age of nine -- he began working with PGA professional Jamie Mulligan at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach.

Mulligan works with only a select few players and all of them, except Cantlay, are touring professionals. That meant that young Cantlay grew up playing alongside John Cook, Paul Goydos, former UCLA standout John Merrick, John Mallinger and Peter Tomasulo and the time spent on the course and around the practice range with those guys has made Cantlay wise beyond his years in terms of golf knowledge.

"It's helped probably more than I know because I’ve spent a lot of time with them so I see how they practice and how they talk and how they act and I think that caused some learning through osmosis," Cantlay said. "I don't really think about it consciously, but trying to act like them really helps because they do things the right way."

Mulligan says that spending time around so many older, polished players has helped Cantlay blossom into a mature player at a far earlier age than most golfers. It has enabled Cantlay to see a golf course the way professionals do and it also has helped keep him calm when he's in the thick of competition. After all, when you play practice rounds against PGA Tour pros, a college invitational isn't going to spook you much.

"He's the most poised player I've worked with at that age," Mulligan said. "He's wise beyond his years as far as thinking his way around the golf course."

Certainly that helps explain how he's had so much success at such an early point in his college career. And after a very successful summer -- Cantlay won the state high school title as a senior at Anaheim's Servite High last June and advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur championship in August -- he arrived at UCLA brimming with confidence.

"I was ready to play well when I came to campus," Cantlay said. "I tried not to have too high expectations that would be unattainable, but I did expect to go out and compete."

His recent run of success, however, has changed the goals. He now lists winning titles and earning all-American honors among his targets. He's also getting familiar with the UCLA record books.

The single-season scoring record of 71.027, set by current UCLA junior Gregor Main last season, is well within reach. He doesn't have enough tournaments remaining to break Duffy Waldorf's record of seven victories in a season, but his three put him behind only Waldorf, Corey Pavin, Steve Pate and Jay Delsing on that list.

Pavin's career record of 11 victories could also become a target should Cantlay stay at UCLA for four years.

"He’s got a lot of things he wants to prove and a lot of goals he’s set that are pretty aggressive," Freeman said. "I definitely expect to have him here for four years."

Cantlay said he has no intentions of leaving school early, acknowledging that he's not quite ready for the grind of the nomadic tour life. Plus, there are those goals.

"Four-time all American would be nice," he said. "No reason to set a small goal."

Only Gary Hallberg, Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Bryce Molder have accomplished that. But there are other reasons. A degree, he said, is important to him and his parents. And Freeman said there is a lot to gain from honing your skills outside of the pressure cooker of playing for a living.

"He still has a lot to learn and he knows that," Freeman said. "The tour lifestyle is hard. You better be ready for it because when it comes, it’s going to hit you hard and fast."

And if he wants to measure his skills against the pros, Cantlay can head down to Virginia Country Club and grab a practice round with Cook or Goydos or Merrick or Mallinger or Tomasulo. The more he can absorb from them, the better, Mulligan said.

"He's the third generation of player that I’ve worked with and he’s taken a little bit of everybody that we’ve ever coached," Mulligan said. "The way they put their shoes on, the way they exercise, they way they eat, the way they travel, they way they practice, the way they play, the way they stand on the tee and look at a golf hole.

"He’s getting to do that with guys that are doing that at the highest level and have really good habits and he’s seen a lot of that."