Jason Day doesn’t have to close his eyes and visualize winning a major anymore.
He’s done it — in record fashion, no less. Day fired a five-under 67, 20-under total, posting the lowest 72-hole score in relation to par in the history of major-championship golf.
The 27-year-old Australian broke through Sunday at Whistling Straits to capture his first major at the PGA Championship after several close calls in recent years.
Day, who held at least a share of the 54-hole lead at the last three majors, has let a few opportunities slip through his fingers. It had gotten to the point where he would have likely received heightened scrutiny and criticism for his inability to close out the big ones had he not done so on Sunday.
“I think it would have been tough for me — it would have been very tough for me to kind of come back from a major championship such as this if I didn’t finish it off,” said Day. “Knowing that I had the 54-hole led or tied for the 54-hole lead for the last three majors and not being able to finish, it would have been tough for me mentally, to really kind of come back from that. Even though I feel like I’m a positive person, I think that kind of in the back of my mind something would have triggered and I would have gone, maybe I can’t really finish it off.”
The past experience that stands out the most in Day’s mind occurred at the 2013 Masters, where he took the lead with three holes to play and then bogeyed nos. 16 and 17 to fall back and finish two shots out of the playoff between fellow countryman Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera.
“I think he said this after, but he kind of choked,” said Day’s wife Ellie, with slight hesitation.
Day won’t deny that and did indeed admit to so much at the time and going forward. It naturally came up in his press conference after he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy.
“(The 2013 Masters) was a tough one to finish, that was a tough one to get over, just knowing that I had the lead,” said Day. “It was in my hands and I had three holes left.
“It took me a little bit to get over, but it was more frustrating because I know that just from what — if I had my head on now, back then, in 2013, I know what I would have finished. I honestly believe I could have finished it off.”
However, such experiences and so-called failures made Day mentally tougher. Had he not endured the disappointments, he doesn’t believe he would have gotten to where he was sitting Sunday evening with the trophy.
“Being close at the U.S. Open, being close at the Open Championship this year, being close at Augusta, all that has — and I said it earlier this week, where I feel like all these experiences that I had is going to set me up for something big in the future, and for me it happened this week,” said Day. “That’s from the experience that I had in those major championships. Made me mentally tough and really understand what I needed to do physically and mentally to prepare myself to win a tournament such as this.”
He also recalled leaving his birdie putt just short right in the jaws of the 72nd hole to get into the playoff with Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman.
“When I was standing there, the shocked belief that I left the putt short to give myself a chance of getting into the playoff,” said Day. “Everyone is in the background saying, yeah, you’ve got to hit it past the hole, yeah, I understand that. But you have to read the putt like you’re going to hit the putt to get it in the hole. And unfortunately, if you’re standing out there and reading the putt and you’re thinking, okay, I’m going to hit it a little harder, you’re going to miss the putt anyway. So when I hit the putt I was just shocked that it pulled up, because I hit a great line.
“I played so great that week with only having three bogeys all week and that was all in the second round, and coming up so short and I really thought that my first Major Championship was going to be at the Open Championship this year. I really did think that. The U.S. Open was very — it was a tough task for me, but I really thought The Open Championship was going to be mine.”
Day felt a sense of relief that he finally got that major monkey off his back. In 20 starts at the big ones, he had 10 top-10 finishes (including today’s victory) — and he actually secured his first one of those at Whistling Straits five years ago. It was always a matter of time with him.
“Some people get there quicker than others, some people make it look easier than others, and I’m just glad that it’s finally happened, because it was kind of wearing on me a little bit,” said Day.
Walking with Day and Jordan Spieth on the front nine of the final round, there was a different look in Day’s eyes. I’d never seen him appear so focused, confident and determined. I could tell he was ready to close this one out. I’ve watched Day play in a lot of golf tournaments the past 5-6 years and I’ve seen him in contention many times — some instances he clearly let the pressure get to him.
That said, I’ve also watched him evolve and gain confidence when he’s gotten into those positions and where he gained valuable lessons. Day’s journey has been interesting, rewarding and compelling to observe. As Spieth would also later recount, Day was simply swinging out of his shoes and striping drives down the fairway one after the other on Sunday. He was simply ready to get it done. There was a look in his eyes that told me he wasn’t going to let the PGA Championship slip through his fingers. He wasn’t going to endure another painful letdown. It was his day and his time to shine.
“Right now I know exactly what I have done to get myself in a position where I’m holding the trophy right now,” said Day. “So as long as I keep working on those things and get the process right, I know that there’s going to be plenty of these to hold as long as I really am feeling motivated and I want it more than anyone else. That’s kind of where you get that free will to go out there and just let everything fly out there on the golf course. And that’s from all the hard work that I put in before tournaments such as this.”
However, it wasn’t as easy as Day made it look. As he walked up to the 18th tee, he thought to himself, “Don’t double-bogey. Don’t hit it left, don’t double bogey. Hit it as hard as you can up the right side.”
He did exactly that. So, he let negative thoughts cross his mind, but it was how he handled the situation that made all the difference.
But the challenge wasn’t over yet. He still had to hit a difficult second shot over the ravine.
While he stood over the ball, he told himself, “Don’t hit it short in the water.”
He safely found the green, even though he had a long putt for birdie.
“Those are the moments like we were talking about, where you have to pull yourself back and say, no, I’m not going to have that,” said Day. “I’m going to stamp my foot on that thought and move forward and try and grind this out and really work on the process of getting the shot right.
“Both those times happened to me. And I fought through those negative thoughts and ended up finishing it off, which is feeling great, because that 17 and 18 is a tough finish, especially with that wind. It was a lot of fun to be able to do that.”
Winning the PGA Championship feels like the start of more great things for Day. He’s one of those guys where it seems like he simply needed to get the first one out of the way.
“For me to really kind of be patient with myself and be disciplined and give myself the opportunities, just really it does wonders for your confidence,” said Day. “And I’m hoping this is kind of a springboard for me to really do some fantastic, great things in the future, especially playing with Jordan and winning the PGA Championship.”