“I figured with those two guys in the group behind me, that one of them would get to at least force a playoff,” he said.
But neither Rahm nor Thomas could close the gap, and Cantlay, who was the world’s top amateur during his UCLA days, held on for his third victory on the PGA Tour — and first in his home state. He was as unwavering as his even-keeled personality, shooting 67, 65, 68 and 65 over the four days.
Thomas and Rahm tied for second, one stroke back of Cantlay, who finished 23-under par for the tournament.
The tournament’s defending champion, Tiger Woods — who also won his fifth Masters last year — wasn’t even so-so at Zozo, finishing tied for 72nd in the field of 77. He was particularly disappointed with the way he played Sherwood’s five par-5 holes.
“I played the par fives awful,” Woods said. “This is one of the golf courses you have to take advantage of all the par fives. They're all reachable and I did not do that well this week …
“The only thing I can take out of this week that I did positively I feel like each and every day and pretty much every hole is I putted well. I feel like I rolled it great. Unfortunately, they were all — most of them were for pars and a couple for bogeys here and there, but not enough for birdies.”
Despite growing up in Long Beach and attending college 34 miles away, Cantlay never had played Sherwood until this tournament, which was moved from Japan because of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, because he look last Monday off and didn’t play in the pro-am, he didn’t even get in his preferred two practice rounds. But he looked completely at ease on the course, with eight birdies Sunday offset by bogey hiccups on holes 8 and 16.
“I just had a really aggressive mentality from the start,” he said. “I made a bunch of good swings early. So after feeling comfortable with my golf swing and my distance control, it just felt like it was off to the races and see how many putts I could make.”
Rahm, the world’s second-ranked player, was in the final group with No. 3 Thomas. Down the stretch, Rahm had the best chance to force a playoff but needed to finish one-under over the final two holes. He rolled an 18-foot birdie putt two feet past the cup on No. 17, and burned the right edge with a make-or-break 19-footer on 18.
Thomas, who began the day with the lead, found himself two back of Cantlay with two holes to play. He just missed an 18-foot birdie putt on 17, and — needing to miraculously hole out with his second shot on 18 — instead knocked it close and made a four-foot putt for birdie.
“I fought like hell,” Thomas said. “I fought as hard as I could. I just didn't have my best stuff.”
He said playing on empty courses, as he will in two weeks at Augusta National, still takes some adjusting.
“I've got to find a way to kind of just stay a little bit more focused out there,” Thomas said. “It's crazy, but sometimes it's hard to just kind of keep the killer instinct and the, you know, stay in the zone when it's as quiet as it is out there.”
As for Cantlay, he’ll head to Georgia this week and play Augusta on Thursday and Friday to prepare for an unprecedented autumn Masters.
The way he sees it, winning Zozo is a good omen.
“I was able to win one of the tournaments Tiger won last year,” he said, “so now I'm just going to go try and win the other event that Tiger won last year.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.