In the summer of 2004, Jason Day had breakfast sitting in the Lodge at Torrey Pines on Sunday before the final round of the Junior World Championships at Torrey Pines’ South Course. He remembers not having an appetite because he was so nervous. At the end of that day, he hoisted the trophy and became the best amateur in the world. Eleven years later, Day found himself in a familiar setting, eating at almost the same table he did when he was 16, but as a golfer, he had matured with each year and he didn’t have the same tense nerves this time around.
Heading into the week, Day had a feeling he was going to win this week. He told his wife Ellie that this year was different than the past seven years on the PGA Tour. They both have been expecting big things from Day, who was plagued with injuries last season, in 2015.
Day prevailed in a four-man playoff to capture the Farmers Insurance Open title, and perhaps it’s the start of a very special year for the 27-year-old from Australia.
“He’s been working harder than he’s probably ever worked before,” said his wife Ellie. “I’ve never seen him more committed to anything — whether it’s his diet or working out. I just think it’s going to click for him. I get shocked every time on the screen when I see that he had only won twice. I just feel like he should’ve won more because he’s so good. I feel like it’s finally coming together, eight years later.”
Much of that has to do with the fact he’s healthy.
“I’ve never been more motivated to play well than right now, this year,” said Day in his post-round presser. “The other years I was very, I was motivated, but I wasn’t, I want to really, I really want to kick butt this year. I’ve come close so many times to having great years and especially going off last year and having the ups and downs of last year, to be able to be healthy begin, be out here playing, getting off to a great start, I just, I said to Ellie, at the end of last year, that I just was really motivated to, not only have a great year this year, but try and achieve that No. 1 spot. That’s obviously going to be very tough, but I’ve got to keep working hard and try and get it.”
As in Day’s previous two victories on Tour, the 2010 Byron Nelson Championship and the 2014 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he didn’t make it very easy on himself, but what’s different is that he finished strong and playing without fear.
On the par-3 17th Day’s approach shot landed in the bunker, where he had a fried-egg lie. He managed to get up-and-down, making a clutch putt to save par. Then, he had a bit of good fortune on the par-5 18th in regulation after he knocked his second shot with a 3-wood over the green and chipped it past the tucked front left pin and over the front edge into the rough, flirting dangerously close to the water hazard guarding the green. At that point, he actually thought the tournament was over.
“It was a terrible lie,” said Day of his shot into 18 in regulation. “There was no way I was going to hit 2-iron in regulation there, because it would have gone into the water. So I just had to suck it up and hit 3-wood over the back. I was just hoping for a decent lie. I was at least seven to 10 paces off the back edge into some thick stuff on a downhill lie, very firm, fast greens.
“I was trying to actually hit right because I knew that it was going to miss the green anyway and as soon as I came through impact it pulled my club way left and the ball started rolling left of the hole and once I saw it go down there I was just thinking, my immediate thought was okay, where do I need to drop. Then I started hearing the crowd, it started — I’m assuming it just started trickling and then once they started cheering I knew that it stayed up. So, when you win golf tournaments, you have to have a little bit of luck and that was my luck. And I needed to capitalize on that bit of luck and try and win this tournament.”
Day, who overcame a two-shot deficit starting the day, chipped it to a few feet and rolled in a clutch par putt and finished with a tournament total of nine-under, which turned out to be good enough to get into a playoff against J.B. Holmes, Harris English and defending champion Scott Stallings. He had a bit of a wait, though, after he signed for a two-under 70 in the final round. Holmes, who was in the final group, still had to play the par-5 18th, which is a birdie hole, particularly because of the Kentuckian’s advantageous length. However, Holmes was in between clubs and chose to lay up — a decision that could be scrutinized — and made a ho-hum par to force a playoff.
“I thought about (going for it in two), but if it would have been five yards shorter or three or four yards longer, it was really on a down slope to the hole and it was just a lie that my tendency is to hit it a little bit further and hit a draw and long and left is dead,” said Holmes in his post-loss presser. “If you hit something over the green there, it’s not really an easy up-and-down. It’s not really the best access to the pin. The best lay up is to lay up and hit a wedge. If I had the same thing again, I would lay up.”
English, who shared the 54-hole lead with Holmes, rolled in a clutch birdie to get to nine-under and join the playoff.
On the first extra hole, the par-5 18th, Day was the only one of the four who found the fairway, giving him a huge advantage and the chance to go for the green in two. He hit a poor shot and came up 20 yards short, but hit his third to kick-in range for birdie. Holmes, who laid up again after finding the fairway bunker off the tee, threw a dart to five feet and also made birdie. With Day and Holmes posting a pair of 4s, English and Stallings, who both made par, were eliminated from the playoff.
Next up was the par-3 16th and Day found himself filled with confidence.
“For some reason it was like perfect because like the whole green is wide open to the right,” he said. “It just felt good today. It was a good, it was just a good number for me. I don’t know what J.B. hit over the back. I’m not too sure what he hit. But after I saw him go over the back, I remember birdieing it in regulation, but as soon as I hit that shot going into that playoff hole, it was nice and high, big draw. It felt really controlled and just glad to that I finished it on the back. Obviously I was a little amped because it went a little further. But that hole suited my eye, just because I can just shrink a little 5-iron draw in there.”
When Day was informed in his presser that Holmes hit a 6-iron over the back of the 16th green, his jaw dropped in awe and he joked that he felt “weak,” but he found consolation that he was sitting there with the trophy.
Holmes’ chip from the back of the green rolled a good 10 feet past the hole and Day had already knocked it tight to about 15 feet for birdie. Day hit a good putt and left himself with a kick-in for par, putting the pressure on Holmes to make his par putt. As it happened, Holmes missed and Day tapped in for par and his third win on the PGA Tour.
Meanwhile, back in the scoring tent, Jason’s two-and-a-half-year-old son Dash was watching with his nanny Amy McClain. Right before the tap-in par putt on the second playoff hole, she told Dash, “If daddy makes this he wins.” When Dash saw his dad hole the putt, he leapt off Amy’s lap and started cheering, “Daddy won! Daddy won!”
Day, who has had many close calls on the PGA Tour, particularly several very memorable ones at majors in recent years, has changed his perspective and learned from his previous mistakes. In the past, he said he had felt fear and ran away from it — like the way he did at the 2013 Masters, where he briefly held the lead with three holes to play in the final round before making some late costly mistakes and losing to fellow Australian Adam Scott. Well, not this time around. Instead, Day faced the adversity and pressure, and more important, he welcomed it.
“I really enjoy playing tough courses, tough U.S. Open courses and this is one of those courses that I enjoy playing,” said Day. “I like to grind it out, I like to, I like tough courses that make you, force you to be stressed. I was talking a little earlier this week and you know, a lot of people when they feel fear they kind of run away from it. I just said, enough, instead of feeling the fear and kind of running away from it, I got to run towards it and try and face it. And did I that this week and I’m happy with the win.”
The manner in which Day won on Sunday was much different than his last stroke play victory in 2010 at the Byron Nelson, where he hit it in the water on the 72nd hole and barely hung on to win. This time, we saw a much more mature Day, who had learned from his previous mistakes, and he embraced the adrenaline and the nerves. In a way, he put to bed some of his demons from the past and it might be a game-changer for Day to open the floodgates to win more often and consistently.
“Obviously I didn’t finish great at Byron — I hit it in the water there and then to be able to hit the shots that I needed to, especially under pressure and for the tournament, is, it not only does a lot for my head and for my game, but just to know that I can pull those shots out and be clutch at the right time is great,” said Day. “To feel that and know that when I used to do it as a junior and amateur, winning all those feelings that would come back, I just know that I can do that and I’ve always said that to myself, I just feel like I’m going to win and it just, over time, it is slowly happening. Which is good.
“I’m just kind of feeling a little bit more comfortable each and every year, especially out here and now feeling like I’m, that I should be here and I should belong. Even though that I’ve played great golf in the past and I’ve been very consistent, I’m starting to feel that. I feel like I’m getting, becoming more of a dominant player.”
Day, who leaped to no. 4 after winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, moves from no. 8 back to no. 4 again with this victory, making him the highest-ranked Australian in the world. The goal, of course, is to overtake world no. 1 Rory McIlroy.
“That’s what we’re striving for,” said Day when asked about eclipsing McIlroy atop the world rankings. “I’m sure there’s other players out here that are striving for that as well. But (Rory’s) playing tremendous golf right now. It’s amazing. There’s certain guys, certain players that come along in this world of golf and make winning look so easy and he’s one of those guys that makes winning look very easy. You look at the previous finishes in Major Championships that he’s played and to win the U.S. Open by eight — and I was the guy that finished second that week — the PGA and the British Open, he just makes it look so easy and effortless.
“I can tell you right now, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to win. I’m stressing out there. I feel, my heart’s pumping. Today I was just trying to calm myself down because my heart was going a hundred miles an hour. It’s obviously going to be tough to try and catch him, but that’s why we are here. We love to compete, we love to try and see what we have got. At the end of the day, I don’t want to go through life thinking that, what if, if I worked a little harder. So, if I can put in a hundred percent every day, really give it a good shot, then at the end of my career, whatever I’ve won in my career, whatever I’ve done in my career, I know that it’s been successful, because that’s as much as I could do.”
Look out, golf world, here’s to a new and improved Jason Day.