The last time I wrote about Jason Day in this column was on a Saturday morning in August last year. Leading the PGA Championship at the turn, the Australian was the punters’ favourite to win; with two victories in 2015, including one—the RBC Canadian Open—less than a fortnight before that tournament, Day had done enough to establish his place amongst the top players in the world, stealing the thunder from his more popular (and fancied) countryman Adam Scott.
As it turned out, it was the perfect time for Day’s game to peak. The 28-year-old got his Major breakthrough that week, holding off a rampaging Jordan Spieth looking for his third major of the season. And it wasn’t even that close: Day’s cumulative 20-under-par set a new scoring record. The streak continued the following week at the FedEx Playoffs when Day won the Barclays and culminated two weeks later when Day wrapped up the BMW Invitational (September 2015) and climbed to the top of the world golf rankings for the first time. It was a watershed moment for the Australian.
Even though he lost that ranking back to Spieth at the PGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship the following week, Day had gobsmacked a golfing world pre-occupied with the Spieth-Rory McIlroy rivalry.
Now, less than a year later, in an almost identical fashion, playing with a hapless Spieth, Day has again won big: not a Major, but the ‘unofficial’ one—the Player’s Championship—and tightened his grasp on the numero uno ranking that he wrested back from Spieth in March this year. To be fair to Spieth, the TPC Sawgrass has never been a happy hunting ground for the American: he missed the cut here for the second time in four appearances. But Spieth saw enough of Day’s play in the first two days when the duo were paired together to sound off the field. “The Jason Day I saw the first two rounds at Chicago (at the BMW Championship 2015) is about the same as the Jason Day now,” he said. “That’s pretty special. He’s not really missing golf shots right now.”
Most ominously, Day led from the start at the Players and never relinquished the advantage—no mean task, especially on the third day when TPC Sawgrass bared its teeth. Overnight, the greens were rolled, the sun came out and dried out the course, the wind came up and the putting surfaces became treacherously fast.
“I played with him one day this week in practice,” said Scott, the 2004 Players champion. “You can see there’s that calmness inside him, calm confidence, and the way he’s walking around, he’s got that kind of unbeatable look about him.”
With the victory, Day takes over the lead in the FedExCup from Scott and joins Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and David Duval as the only players who reached double digits in victories before turning 29.
Day upped the ante on the second day, shooting a course record six-under 66 that gave him a four-stroke lead heading into the weekend, sparking comparisons with countryman Greg Norman, who was in exactly the same spot when he won in 1994. Norman had seemed imperious, almost untouchable that year, and Day displayed a similar demeanour when he dug deep to salvage a one-over 73 round on a brutal Saturday. With greens measuring a ludicrous 18-19 on the stimpmeter, he pulled out two late birdies to limit the damage caused by three dropped shots earlier in the day. “The toughest day I’ve ever had to play in my life,” Day called it.
On Sunday, despite three flubbed chips on the front nine, Day’s lead never went below three shots and he cruised to victory. With this win, Day has now converted four 54-hole leads into victory, and won seven of his previous 17 starts, leading Scott to remark that Day’s performance has been ‘Tiger-esque’. There’s more than meets the eye with that comparison: Day, who idolised Woods growing up, has been regularly touching upon the former world number one for advice. “Tiger says he’s going to kick my butt when he comes back,” revealed Day. Talking to PGATour.com, Day’s caddie and mentor Colin Swatton said that he has definitely seen a change in Day since starting the dialogue with Woods. Not so much in how he plays, but just his self-belief. “I don’t know exactly what they talk about,” Swatton said, “but I can definitely see Jason developing more confidence—and that’s a very, very hard thing to get.
Even if you think winning makes you confident, it doesn’t always do that.” Day has obviously been listening, becoming the PGA Tours’ best closing act—exactly what Woods was famous for.
At the post-round conference after winning the Players, Day spoke about Woods: “It’s been an amazing kind of journey for me to be able to idolise him as a junior guy and growing up,” Day said, “and now I’m good mates with him and I get to pick his brain about what he did when he was dominating.” Interestingly, Day also brought up missing out at the Open Championship last year when he left a putt that would have put him in a playoff short. “It just flat-out sucks losing,” Day said. “I don’t like being on the receiving end of it. “I like doing this, sitting next to the trophy and being able to tell you how great of a week I had.”
With that level of confidence, the top-ranked golfer in the world seems in no mood to cede any ground. But that’s unlikely to faze Spieth or McIlroy: the trio make the most even-sided contest at the apex of professional golf that we’ve seen in decades. It promises to be an exciting tussle at the top in 2016.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game