HIT IT LONGER GET IT CLOSER
BY JASON DAY
THERE’S AN EASY “HI, MATE” OPENNESS AND HUMILITY TO JASON DAY.
The28-year-oldAustraliancallshimself“aboringperson,”equatinggolf’sother20-somethingsto“thepopularkidsinschool . . . I’m just the nerd in the back.” Day’s attempt at a recent press conference to explain his combination of power and touch – “Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy had a baby, and I was it” – was slightly, though charmingly, off. It’s why he lets his wife, Ellie, do his tweeting. But Day’s warmth is the reason his ascension to World No 1 last September, shortly after winning his first major championship, at Whistling Straits, has been a popular one in the caddie yards, equipment trailers and tournament offices of professional golf, and especially among the tight group of players and families who, like the Days, regularly travel and try to normalise tour life in a luxury RV. “Jason has a sweet nature that’s pretty laid-back, even when he’s got to be intense,” says fellow Aussie and friend Geoff Ogilvy.“Most players, especially the really good ones, aren’t like that.” by jaime diaz photographs by walter iooss jr
Day is unlike his peers in another, seemingly opposite way. From age 10 to 13 in a rough side of Rockhampton, a Gold Coast town north of Brisbane, Day got into a lot of fistfights.Though many took place in schoolyards, they were still the gasping, desperate kind that ended when one party quit or got hurt, although the stress of a quick rematch could loom.
It’s not the background of most professional golfers. As Lee Trevino, a brawler in his public golf years in Dallas and El Paso, told Golf Digest’s GuyYocom,“Think twice before throwing the first punch, because you’re making a big commitment.” It’s true that the first time Byron Nelson saw Ben Hogan, the fellow 13-year-old was boxing against another Fort Worth caddie named Joe Boy. Chi Chi Rodriguez fought for sodas in the streets of San Juan, Ian Woosnam and Fred Funk boxed as kids, and Esteban Toledo was once a talented professional fighter. But these days, fighting has pretty much been drummed out of golf.
Day fought mostly as a result of the violence in his home. Earlier this year, he revealed on David Feherty’s television show that his father,Alvyn, was an alcoholic who physically abused Jason and his mother, Dening. Not long after Alvyn’s 6-year-old son showed immediate talent and enthusiasm for hitting shots with a 3-wood recovered from a garbage dump, the father began taking Jason to local junior tournaments and applying an extraordinary pressure to perform.At 11, Day says,“If I played bad golf, he’d beat me up.”
When Jason was being bullied in school, or, as the only Asian kid in his class (his mother is Filipino), was taunted with racial slurs, he dreaded his father finding out. “He’d tell me,‘If you don’t fight that kid tomorrow, I’m going to beat you up when you get home,’ ” Day says.“So I’d get in a fight.”
Alvyn died of stomach cancer when Jason was 12. Not surprisingly, the leftover turmoil and anger within his son, now without a strong authority figure, led to an aimless period of drinking and more fighting.
Day says he doesn’t remember much about those days.“Maybe I’ve blocked it out,” he says.“I look back on the influence my dad had on my life and career, and I just try to take the best parts of what he had.”Although on “Feherty” he said, “Every now and then I think about him and absolutely hate him.”
But Day recalls, and sometimes draws on, the sensations of being in those early fights.“Anything can happen, so you have to control your attitude and stay strong,” he says.“Another person is trying to hurt you, and you’re trying to hurt them, so if you make a mistake, you’re in trouble. My dad was the way he was, but he also gave me a motto: never say die. Just to keep pushing and pushing, fighting until the end. He put it in my head that you’re always going to fight, and you’re always going to beat them. At the same time, my mother, who is the hardest worker I know, told me that the best thing about me was that I never give up. If I have an extra gear, that’s where it comes from.”
Although he hasn’t been in a fight since he was 13 – “I would suck at it now” – Day knows there is a hardness from those days deep within. He accessed it in winning the WGC-Match Play in 2014 and 2016, and in his insistence during those mano-a-mano battles on making opponents putt short ones that might normally be conceded.
The increased self-awareness that has been part of Day’s growth as a player is reflected in a lexicon that clearly sees tournament golf as a psychological battle. He favours terms such as “fight or flight,” “instant” versus “delayed” gratification, “being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” avoiding “self-sabotage,” and the need to “walk towards the fear” to describe his feelings and thoughts during competition.
At Bay Hill, where he hung in and came from behind to win on the strength of his short game – he did the same thing a week later at the Match Play, particularly in beating McIlroy in a tense semifinal – Day admitted the stress of making up for poor ball-striking presented a test he used to be unable to pass.“It’s so uncomfortable, you feel like you want to run away,” he said.“Times like that are where you go, ‘I can’t focus on running away. I have to face this straight on. I’ve got to fight for this win.’ ” B LIBERATING BREAKTHROUGH reaking through has been liberating and energising. Seeing what’s possible, he has stepped up efforts in every area. Under trainer Cornell Driessen, the 6-foot, 86-kilogram has focused on strengthening his core for greater speed and to guard against more injury to what has been a troublesome lower back. Caddie, coach and father figure Colin Swatton guides Day through the technical and mental challenges, as he has done since Jason was 12. Day has also increased his texting correspondence with childhood hero and friend Tiger Woods, saying “If you’re going to pick a brain, it would be his.”
And if you’re going to pick a power player, it would be Day. Employing driver clubhead speed in excess of 120 miles per hour (193kph), at Whistling Straits he became the first player to shoot 20 under par in a major. But Day’s biggest improvement over the past 18 months has been with his now-familiar high-tech mallet putter. According to statistician Peter Sanders, before Day’s victory at the Canadian Open last July, Day’s make rate on putts in the crucial range between four and 10 feet was below the PGA Tour average of 60 percent. But that rate has risen to over 70 percent, gaining Day about 2½ strokes per tournament.
His goals? As many wins as possible, multiple majors, including the career Grand Slam, and surpassing Greg Norman’s 331 weeks at No 1 (Woods’ record of 683 is apparently unassailable). In short, Day is all in.
“I’ve never been so committed to myself,” he said before winning the Players for his 10th PGA Tour victory.“I’m motivated to extend the gap between me and No 2. I’m going to work as hard as I can and see where it goes.”
Day’s prospects dramatically improved when his mother mortgaged their home and used her husband’s life-insurance
policy and a loan from her brother to get Jason away from his behaviour in Rockhampton and into the highly regarded Kooralbyn boarding school – with a first-class golf programme whose alumni included Adam Scott – several hundred kilometres away.There, Day and Swatton connected, with the troubled adolescent having “a moment of clarity” to suppress the rebellion he was feeling for authority and deferring to the teacher.
Almost immediately, Day demonstrated the obsessive work ethic of a young man hungering for approval and validation. Inspired by Woods’ instruction book, How I Play Golf, Day began rising at 5am to practice and play before classes.
Under Swatton, Day developed a game reminiscent of Norman’s in the stability, compactness and speed of his swing, the height of his ball flight, and his skill with the short game and putter. Day dominated his age groups in Australia, and in 2004 he travelled to San Diego and was a winner in the Callaway Junior World Championships. By 18, he had turned pro, and in 2007 he joined the Nationwide Tour. In his first year, he finished fifth on the money list and qualified for the PGA Tour. He famously said,“I can take Tiger down.” (Says Day today:“When you’re that young and you’re full of confidence, you don’t say the greatest things.”) D MENTALLY FRAGILE ay appeared to have been rescued. But his past made the road ahead complicated and confusing. “Anytime he was given good feedback, it was so unfamiliar to him, he didn’t like it,” Swatton says.“He still struggles with complimentary stuff.”The kid who had grown up being criticised wasn’t sure he was good enough. On the PGA Tour, amid the game’s best players and the toughest setups, Day began to question himself and proved mentally fragile.
From 2008 through 2013, Day won once in 129 PGA Tour starts. His lone victory came in the Byron Nelson, where, with a one-shot lead, he hooked a middle iron into the water on the 72nd hole and made bogey but survived when Blake Adams did the same thing.
At the 2013 Masters, Day arrived at the 16th tee on Sunday with a one-stroke lead but admitted later,“My body just froze.” Two consecutive bogeys led to a thirdplace finish behind Scott.As the winless years went by, Day fought complacency, burnout and frequent injury. Before his first Masters in 2011, in which he tied for second, Day was giving serious thought to quitting the tour.
“He wasn’t having fun, and he was searching,” Swatton says.“Countless times on the range and on the golf course, we’d have these conversations, and he’d ask, ‘Why do you think I don’t win more?’ I would always say,‘Jase, you will win more often when you want to win more.’ I’m sure he thought, Yeah, what the hell does that mean?”
In essence, Day was still in a fight – but this time with himself.Again, he didn’t quit.
“I had to go through something like that to experience what it is to fail, and fail hard,” he says.“Even though I hated it, I needed it in my career.”
“We were both so young, figuring everything out,” Ellie told pgatour.com last year.“People always thought he was so mature, but he did really immature things back then. He played video games all the time. He was still throwing golf clubs, and I’d see him cussing on the golf course. He had phases where he would almost give up.” Today, Ellie says,“He’s a machine.” At the end of 2012, a year in which Day’s adjustment to the birth of his son, Dash, coincided with his worst career finish on the FedEx Cup points list (daughter Lucy arrived in November last year), Swatton, Ellie and longtime manager Bud Martin all told Day he wasn’t working hard enough.“Jason’s naturally a hard worker, so that pissed him off,” Martin says,“but it needed to be said, and he took it the right way – as a challenge.”
Day began using the principles of FocusBand, which measures brain activity and cognitive function.A routine that begins when Day arrives at his ball and features standing on the target line with fluttering eyes shows Day how to use the “right brain” hemisphere that can access “the zone” and what that feels like – and how to replicate it.
When Day encountered vertigo in the second round of the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, falling on his final hole, he shot rounds of 68-74 on the weekend despite the lingering effects to finish T-9. Day took it as a positive, saying the adversity “helped me to see how far I could really push myself.”
In the next major, the Open Championship at St Andrews, Day had a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff but left it short. On the plane to Toronto for the Canadian Open, Day realised that he had played with great consistency – his only three bogeys coming during the windblown second round – and possessed a new serenity.“It felt like it changed me and the way I look at myself,” he says.When he got off the plane and into the limo, Day told Martin,“I’m going to win this week.”
The day before the tournament, Day sat down with filmmaker Kevin Foley (brother of coach Sean Foley) to talk about his life.“He was still raw from St Andrews, and his eyes looked right through me and burned into the camera,” Foley says