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Patrick Cantlay likes chances at Riviera

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- All Patrick Cantlay did the second time he had a chance to play alongside the pros was post the lowest score on the PGA Tour last year -- 10-under 60 at the Travelers Championship last June.

That came after he tied for 21st at the U.S. Open the week before. He went on to make the cut in all of his first five tournaments and finish in the top 25 in four of them.

Oh, and he's 19, did we forget to mention that?

Needless to say, expectations for the UCLA sophomore will be pretty high when he tees off on a sponsor's exemption in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on Thursday morning.

This isn't a "get-your-feet-wet" exercise for Cantlay anymore. He blew past that stage last summer. Strange as it might sound to say about an amateur teeing off against four of the top 10 players in the world, but no one batted an eye when Cantlay said Wednesday that he's approaching Riviera as a tournament he could win this year.

"I definitely feel confident enough to win no matter what tournament I'm playing in if I play well," Cantlay said. "I try not to put any expectations on myself or anything because I think that allows you to play your best."

An amateur winning a PGA Tour event? It's been done before, just not often. Coincidentally, the guy who followed Cantlay to the podium Wednesday morning, Phil Mickelson, was the last amateur-turned-tour-champion, winning the Northern Telecom Open in 1991 while he was still a student at Arizona State. In 1985, Scott Verplank won the Western Open while a student at Oklahoma State.

Cantlay's got a long way to go before he joins such select company, and just might have some competition from the field at Riviera. He's scheduled to tee off at No. 10 at 8:30 a.m. PT, 10 minutes ahead of fellow phenom Jordan Spieth. A freshman at Texas, Spieth is a two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion.

In a fun coincidence, the two amateurs will likely be back at Riviera to compete in the NCAA Championships starting May 29.

"It's definitely great to be able to play the tournament, to play a tournament on a course that you're going to play one of the biggest events of the year at later," Cantlay said of a potential future encounter with Spieth. "But I'm still focused on playing as best I can this week. This is just as big as NCAAs for me."

As for his approach this week, let's just say that it helped Cantlay quite a bit to play in those four tour events last June and the Frys.com open in October.

"I think my game has matured," he said. "I think I've gotten a little bigger and a little stronger. I also think that I feel a lot more comfortable out here, kind of know the routine and what to do, and I know what it's like to play in the biggest tournaments."

Asked about the best piece of advice he's received, Cantlay said, "John Cook told me golf is just golf, no matter if it's a college event or junior tournament or with your buddies or in the U.S. Open. It's all the same. You're just trying to get the ball in the hole as fast as possible."

Cantlay, who grew up about a half-hour south of the historic par-71 course nestled in the hills about five miles west of the UCLA campus, said he's played Riviera a dozen or so times. He's the first UCLA amateur to play in the tournament since 1987.

He's also scheduled to play in the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open later this year.

"I've obviously seen what he's been doing on the golf course," Mickelson said. "It's impressive, from Hartford (site of the Travelers) to the U.S. Open to the U.S. Amateur. He's one of the top amateurs in the country and has done a lot for UCLA golf."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.