Patrick Cantlay, formerly the world’s top-ranked amateur, decided to forego his junior and senior seasons at UCLA and turn professional this week at the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Conn.
The site of Cantlay’s professional debut is not surprising. A year ago, he shot a 60 at the event — the lowest round by an amateur in the history of the PGA Tour — on his way to a top-25 finish. Cantlay had a stellar record as an amateur playing in professional events, with a tie for 21st at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club and a tie for 47th this year at the Master’s.
Cantlay’s rise through the collegiate and amateur ranks is also impressive. In 65 competitive rounds for the UCLA Bruins, Cantlay was an astounding 35-under-par. His freshman season saw him win the Jack Nicklaus Award as the best Div. 1 collegiate player and the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s best freshman. He was the runner-up to Kelly Kraft at the 2011 U.S. Amateur and recorded a 2-1-1 record at the Walker Cup. Clearly, the kid has serious game.
That brings us to the question of whether his decision to turn pro after the 2012 U.S. Open is the correct one.
In terms of amateur athletes declaring to go professional early, I have always leaned towards the idea that if you are good enough to get paid now, you should get paid now. There is no telling what kind of injury problems are around the corner, so you should cash in while you can. I have never had a problem with great collegiate football or basketball players declaring early so they can make their money.
A common argument against leaving school to go pro is that the athlete should finish his or her degree. This logic makes absolutely no sense. People are aware that athletes can come back and finish their degree at any time, right? If the professional sports route doesn’t work, the athlete can go finish their degree after the fact, and they likely at least made rookie money in whatever sport they chose.
Golf, however, is a little different. When a football player gets drafted, they get a rookie contract based on where they went in the draft. That is basically guaranteed money. In golf you have to earn every paycheck. There are no guarantees. The water is a bit murkier.
With that being the case, when is the correct time for a golfer to turn professional, and did Cantlay make the right choice?
Another factor that weighs on a golfer’s decision to turn pro are the strength of amateur events in the United States and around the world. Winning USGA Championships like the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Amateur Public Links is prestigious, and can gain a player a spot on the Walker Cup Team. Turning pro eliminates all of these opportunities. Very few sports offer the kind of achievement at the amateur level that golf does.
The correct answer on when a player should turn professional is: whenever they feel comfortable. Cantlay often said that he would play all four years at UCLA, but it seems as though he has been so comfortable competing at the highest level that playing collegiate golf isn’t enticing anymore. If he feels he is ready to compete, then why not shed the amateur label and try to use his talent to make a living?
Some players like to learn how to win on the amateur level before turning professional. Tiger Woods spent one year at Stanford, won the NCAA Individual Championship, and then said “Hello World” as he joined the PGA Tour. We know the rest. But his whole plan was to learn how to win at every level which, according to his record, seems to have worked fairly well.
Other players turn professional at a very young age to try and cash in as quickly as possible. Michelle Wie’s career has been scrutinized for this reason, but nobody can argue her decision was poor from a fiscal standpoint. Rory McIlroy turned professional at age 17 and has been a mainstay on the world stage ever since.
The point is that for every player, the decision to turn pro is different. It is easy to judge it based on one round or one tournament, but only at the end of a career is it possible to really judge whether it was the right call or not. If Cantlay felt ready to turn professional now, then now is the right time for him.