GOLF SAVED MY LIFE
The former world number one opens up to Brian Wacker about his troubled past, his mother’s cancer and his efforts to regain his major-winning form.
I WOKE UP ONCE IN A GUTTER IN FRONT OF OUR HOUSE AFTER BLACKING OUT FROM DRINKING.
Jason Day has achieved his dreams of becoming a major champion and reaching No. 1 in the world. But the 29-year-old Australian is only just getting started. As someone who grew up idolising Tiger Woods, he wants more victories, more domination. When his game is on, he’s arguably the best in the world. He can overpower courses off the tee, hit towering laser-like iron shots and possesses one of the best short games on tour.
It all almost never happened for him, though. Had his abusive alcoholic father Alvin not died of stomach cancer when Day was just 11 years old, he says he likely wouldn’t be where he is today. The 2015 US PGA champion may be enduring a mini-slump in 2017, but after overcoming so much to become one of the world’s elite, you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll be contending in majors again very soon.
In an exclusive interview, Day opens up about his rise to the top, the good and not-so-good moments along the way, battling injuries, winning the US PGA championship and how he can regain that form after a rocky start to 2017.
Your dad was an alcoholic and abusive, but you’re close with a lot of your family. How do you describe your childhood?
I obviously had a rough upbringing in the sense of my dad being abusive, drinking. But it’s weird, it’s almost like I don’t allow myself to think about it because I get emotional when I do, so I think it’s a mechanism where I just block it out. I literally can’t even remember what my dad looks like. If I try to picture him right now, I can’t. I couldn’t even tell you what he looked like. But at the same time, I do have happy memories from childhood of my mum and siblings. In that situation, and after years of therapy, you just end up blocking all that out, almost erasing it because you can’t function otherwise.
What role did golf play in your upbringing?
It saved me, really. I got in trouble a lot as a kid – getting into fights... there was drinking. I woke up once in a gutter in front of our house after blacking out from drinking. It wasn’t good. Golf was an escape for me. It was something I was good at, too, and it gave me motivation. I remember reading Tiger Woods’ instruction book, ‘How I Play Golf’, and that really inspired me. Golf definitely saved my life though. I don’t know where I’d be otherwise, and I wouldn’t be where I am if my dad hadn’t died [of cancer] when I was 11, which is weird to say, but it’s true. Who knows where I would be?
What was one of the darker memories of your childhood that you do remember?
To this day, I still can’t stand mangos. I won’t eat them. Growing up in Australia there are loads of mango trees and a lot of kids eat them. But I remember my dad being mad at me, punishing me for swearing at my sister, who told on me. There was this massive rainstorm one night and it was dark outside and as punishment he made me stand outside under this mango tree. It’s all muddy and dirty and all these rotten mangos are all around me, I’m getting soaked and I’m just getting eaten alive by all the mosquitos and bugs. It was terrifying – you’re a kid and it’s dark out there and the weather is a big storm. My mum wanted to let me back in the house but he said ‘no’ and made me stand out there for quite a few hours. I still can’t stand the taste of mangos to this day.
At what point did you think golf could be a career for you?
Probably around 2004. I’d won all the big tournaments in Australia and got invited to play in the Callaway World Junior Championship at Torrey Pines. I had never even been out of the country at that point and that was a sort of a ‘Who’s Who’ of golf. That tournament has such a history of all the big names having played and won there. My coach and caddie Colin Swatton was the only one there with me that week, and I remember us talking like ‘OK yeah, I can do this’.
You have a close-knit group of people around you and every year you have a team meeting at the end of the year.
DIED OF ‘I WOULDN’T BE WHERE I AM IF MY DAD HADN’T SAY, BUT IS TRUE’ CANCER WHEN I WAS 11, WHICH IS WEIRD TO
Describe the one in 2012. That was a real turning point in your career, wasn’t it?
People think you get up and go play golf and it’s just all you. Well I have a caddie, coach, trainer, agent, wife, whoever is on that team. In 2012, it was tough. Our first child, Dash, was born that year and he wasn’t an easy baby. He was screaming a lot and my wife Ellie had postpartum depression. In the meeting, everyone was attacking me because I wasn’t putting in 100 per cent and even ‘though they’re there to tell me the things I need to do, I didn’t want to hear it. I just sort of cut it short, checked out. I didn’t want to listen to any of them. It got a little tense, and that was tough because one of the people in the room is also my wife. We all had to step away. I’d had enough. But once that happened I started working harder. At the end of the day, I have to want it. I feel like no one can beat me if I want it.
You’ve had a number of injuries or maladies in your career – ankle, thumb, back, the vertigo. What was the most frustrating or the toughest of them?
My thumb was probably most concerning. I actually thought I was going to have to quit golf because I literally couldn’t hold the club. You can get away with the back a little bit every now and then, you can kind of get through it. It was more concerning because it was new, and when something is new you don’t know how long it will take. But now, it’s not really been a concern because I know exactly what’s going on. We get an MRI and all these scans at the end of every year. So with the L4-L5 disc, theres there’s actually more space there. The bulged disc is gone. And normally when you have degeneration of a disc, it usually slowly gets worse. For some reason, mine’s got better. With my thumb I had three injections in four weeks, and it just never got better. That’s a lot of cortisone injections. I remember sitting there and they would pull the thumb, so the knuckle could expand and they inject it in between the knuckle. And it hurt, I mean, like hell, it hurt so bad. I was just trying to get some sort of numbness to it so I could actually hold the club.
Was the physical or the mental aspect more difficult once you came back?
Mental, for sure. Because when you’re injured or coming back from injury you
never really fully trust yourself physically. You can think you’re fine and all that but it takes a while before you actually know it, for your brain to actually process it.
Describe the biggest moment of your career.
The walk up 18 at Whistling Straits. To be able to make that walk, have a threeshot lead, knowing I’d finally won a major, that was obviously pretty special. But to be able to share that with Col (Swatton) and cry in his arms, and my wife and family. It was this great sense of not only relief, but an overwhelming feeling because of everything I’d gone through – the injuries, stuff from my childhood. It all just came flooding out.
Whose game pushes you the most when they’re on?
Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth are probably the three. They’ve separated themselves a bit. But if I had to pick one, I’d say Rory. When he’s on he can be unbeatable with the way he drives it so far and straight. His game is predicated on his driving so if he’s hitting it well off the tee, he’s going to have wedges into everything and when his iron play is on it’s laser-like. He just gets in a zone. His game is probably most similar to mine and challenges me most.
How would you describe your relationship with your coach and caddie Colin Swatton? How does that work?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. No doubt. He’s my coach, caddie and early on was in some ways a father figure because he’s older than me, has lived a lot of life experiences. I’ve known him since I was 12 years old. He’s like family. He is family at this point. He’s very good at his job, analysing all the data and disseminating it down to me and it’s worked great. It can be difficult wearing two hats but he does it well and having a coach on the course is sometimes really helpful for me. But he also knows when to just be a caddie and be in that role.
Adam Scott often goes back to play in Australia. You don’t go as often. Why?
I’d love to go back more and try to as much as I can. It was tough at the end of last year because of my back. Getting on a long plane ride to Oz probably wouldn’t have been the smartest idea at that point, as much as I love being there. But I do go back when I can and really look forward to it because I spend most of my time these days in America. My family come to America as well, but I love Australia.
How has your mother’s battle with cancer affected you this year?
When someone has cancer and you don’t know whether or not they’re going to survive, it’s tough. Plus, with my mum, she sacrificed a lotl for me to be in this position. I didn’t want to focus on golf. I didn’t want to be on the golf course, because I knew she was at home. My sister and my mum were in America, but they’re in a country that is not their home, they’re at my place and they don’t drive on our side of the road, so they don’t have a car to get anywhere. They’re by themselves. There’s a lot of worrying about their livelihood and the health of my mum. And now that she’s much better and she’s healing, my mind is in a better place. The unfortunate thing about life is that everyone is going to pass away at some point, and it never gets easier as you get older, because once you get older it seems like more and more people you know pass away. Hopefully at the end of your lifetime you’ve changed people’s lives. And my mum has defifinitely impacted not only my life, but my sisters’ lives and I’m sure she’s impacted other people’s lives through the stories that I’ve told. I can’t imagine going through what she was feeling like, raising three children by herself, not working, not having much money, and making the sacrififice or decision to go, ‘OK, I’m going to forego my daughter’s colleges, and put
‘I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO HAVE TO QUIT GOLF BECAUSE OF THE THUMB INJURY – I LITER ALLY COULDN’T HOLD THE CLUB’
my boy in the golf academy, take a second mortgage on the house, borrow money from my aunt and uncle’. That was a big sacrifice for her. So obviously everything I have is due to her decisions back then giving me the opportunities now.
The stats suggest your approach play has gone off the boil and putting has dipped. Is that a concern or have you just not played enough competitive golf?
Back in 2015 and 2016 I didn’t want to finish in second place. I wanted it more than anything in the world. I got a little bit burned out at the end of 2016, and had a couple of injuries as well. My back was really letting me down and I was very disappointed in that. You take the burnout factor and the injuries and just being fed up with it, the pressure of being No. 1 was difficult, as well. It got to me little bit. The hardest thing in golf is motivation comes and goes, but the discipline needs to be there every single day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as disciplined at the start of this year as I had been over the last few years, because a lot of the work that went into winning in 2015 and 2016 happened the years leading up to it. The motivation will always come and go, and that’s something that you can’t always control. Some days you just wake up more motivated than others, but you always have to stay disciplined. If you can stay disciplined within yourself, hopefully the little slump will end and you can start to play better golf. Saying that, I’ve been working very hard. I’ve been trying to tick the boxes, and hopefully I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
What have you worked on, specifically?
I was hitting a boatload of drivers and 2-irons, working a lot on my wedge and short game, really. My putting has been really off. My speed’s been really difficult this year. I was explaining it to someone, I think it was Sean O’Hair. When you’re reading a putt and have consistent speed, it’s easy to see one line all the time. But when your speed is off, there’s a massive distance variance that you’re looking at and it’s not consistent. If it’s not consistent, you’ll see three different lines – you’ll see a high line, the right line and the low line – and it’s very difficult to trust what line you’re hitting when your speed is way off. So I worked a lot on lag putting, trying to get my speed down, because if I can get my speed down, then the actual line itself will come back to neutral and I’ll be able to read the putts more consistently and hole more putts. So I did a lot of that.
You haven’t played a lot this year, so is it a case of just getting more competitive rounds under your belt to regain form?
If you take 2015 and 2016, I hit it long and straight, I hit my iron shots a lot closer and I holed everything. And this year it’s not as long, it’s not as straight. My iron shots aren’t as close, and I’m not holing as many putts. So it’s a perfect formula for not having a good year. I’ve just got to keep working at it. The hardest thing is being able to take your own advice sometimes. It’s so easy to give advice out. Unfortunately, it’s very, very difficult to take your own advice sometimes. And my advice is to be as patient as possible and just keep ticking the boxes, and hopefully the work pays off in the long run.run
How close are you to recapturing the form that won you a major and made you world number one?
You need really good balance in this game to play as you’d like to play. Like in any sport, you need balance off the course and on the course to be able to do the right things, think properly, be disciplined enough, be able to play against the best players. It’s really difficult to play against these guys, and it makes it very, very difficult to win when you’re trying to battle other things. So I’m happy now, but also a little disappointed in how things have progressed. But I have to understand I’ve got to give myself a little bit of leeway, know that golf is a marathon, and hopefully at the end of my career I’m in some way at the top, somewhere I’ve never even thought I’d be. Like I said before, I’ve just got to be patient and let things happen, because I honestly believe good and big things are coming. I’ve got to just trust it and keep working hard.
Day has not fired in the 2017 majors so far.
With son Dash who, indirectly, had a big impact on his game.
Day collapsed with vertigo at the ‘15 US Open.