Less than a year ago, Jason Day backed into his first PGA Tour victory, chunking a shot into the water on the 72nd hole, at the Byron Nelson Championship. (Luckily, moments later, Blake Adams followed him in the drink.) And in February, Day was so unhappy that he felt like he “was going to quit.” Two months later, playing in his first Masters, the 23-year-old Australian threatened the course record at Augusta with a 64 in the third round and then staged a back nine run to nearly win.
With all the impressive play that took place on Sunday, I was most impressed with Jason and how well he handled his nerves. (Everyone says you’ve got to play Augusta once under the gun to really know how to play Augusta under the gun because, well, exhibit A: Rory McIlroy.) I’ve seen him play quite a bit and there was something different, but I couldn’t pin it down. So today, I asked him during his presser at Harbour Town in Hilton Head, SC, site of The Heritage.
Day realized developing a stronger mental game was the missing link to playing to his full potential. (I don’t have to tell you that he’s extremely talented. He put on the best show of ballstriking I’ve ever seen during a practice round at St. Andrews last year. I was blown away.)
“I’ve been working on my swing for six to eight years, I’ve worked on my body for ten years and I’ve been working on my mental game since LA, so the experience compared to my technical and physical side is very low. I’ve got to try and keep building on that.”
“I started carrying a yardage book,” said Day. “I never used to carry a yardage book over the three years on Tour, this is my fourth year. I let (Colin Swatton, my caddie) do the yardages, but getting back to the preparation, I’d go around to each hole, especially in the practice rounds, and I’d sit down and say for these pins I’d hit it here. I knew exactly every time I stood up on the green or tee or fairway, I knew exactly where I needed to hit it.
“Pretty much from there I went on playing the final rounds I knew exactly where I needed to hit it to give myself the best possible chance for the putt. Giving 100 percent and just focusing on trying to place my ball where I needed to. And just focusing on that alone was pretty much, just took away the anxiety. I didn’t focus on anything else at all.”
Day developed this plan with Neale Smith, a mental coach he began working with after the Northern Trust Open in February. Smith felt Day needed structure on the golf course to help him play better, so carrying a yardage book was the decision. Last year Day briefly worked with another mental guru and for his program, Day had to keep a golf journal after every round, which ended up weighing him down.
His wife Ellie shed more light: “He was so unhappy before. He needs structure and a gameplan and somebody besides me or Colin to tell him. He had seen someone last year but his head went wacky after that because he had too much to think about. He was keeping a golf journal constantly and every time he came off the course, he looked like he had taken the ACT three times.
“So he was off the whole idea for a while. Then in LA, he just realized his head was everywhere and he wasn’t enjoying golf at all. He was all negative on himself. Finally, between Col and I, we kind of talked him into seeing somebody, anybody, just to get stuff off his chest. And that weekend, he met Neale and after that he went from wanting to quit golf to kicking butt in the matchplay.”
My reaction? Day’s going to be unstoppable soon. That’s obviously a bit of a hyperbole, but those were the first words I found upon learning that he’d figured out or at least started developing a better mental approach.
Oh, and since we’re at The Heritage this week, Day wouldn’t be a bad pick for your Fantasy Golf team.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)