Day is ready to start climb­ing back to No. 1

Stay­ing at the top was hard, but re­turn­ing will be tougher with John­son in the way

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - DOUG FER­GU­SON

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. Ja­son Day used to think no one could beat him, and there wasn’t much ev­i­dence to prove him wrong.

When he won The Players Cham­pi­onship last year against the strong­est field in golf — he was the first wire-to-wire win­ner at the TPC Saw­grass in 33 years — it was his sev­enth vic­tory in 10 months. He was No. 1 in the world with a points av­er­age only Tiger Woods had reached over the last two decades. He was de­ter­mined to do more.

“Win­ning is never enough,” he said that day. “And I’ve got to try and do it as much as I can be­fore my time is over.”

Hard as it is to be­lieve now, that was his last vic­tory.

Day makes it sound as though the bur­den of be­ing No. 1 be­came too much to bear, which led to him slowly rap­pelling down the moun­tain with sur­pris­ingly few chances of do­ing what for the long­est time had felt so easy.

He threw away a good chance to win at the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional when he lost the lead on the back nine by missing the last six greens in reg­u­la­tion. He fell too far be­hind Jimmy Walker to catch him in the PGA Cham­pi­onship. And then an old neme­sis — back pain — re­turned dur­ing the FedEx Cup play­offs, and the 29-year-old Aus­tralian with­drew dur­ing the last two tour­na­ments.

Day ef­fec­tively reached what he refers to as “base camp” in Fe­bru­ary when Dustin John­son re­placed him at No. 1.

And now it’s time to start the climb. It’s a tall or­der. Get­ting to the top might prove to be eas­ier than get­ting back.

“Dustin John­son is out there play­ing pretty well,” Day said Tues­day. “That usu­ally makes it pretty hard when some­one hits it 350 yards down the mid­dle and flicks it on with a wedge and holes all the putts. That’s what I was do­ing a cou­ple years ago.”

John­son makes the task look like Ever­est. Com­ing off three straight vic­to­ries against the three tough­est fields of the year, he missed the Mas­ters fol­low­ing a slip down the stairs that bruised his back, went six weeks with­out play­ing and re­turned to fin­ish one shot be­hind last week in North Carolina. Not only is John­son at No. 1, his lead is greater than any­one’s ex­cept what Woods en­joyed over the last 20 years.

Day, whose goal in Jan­uary was to stay at No. 1 the en­tire year, is now No. 3.

“Be­ing able to climb that moun­tain is very dif­fi­cult be­cause sit­ting back and know­ing that I’ve done it be­fore, how much work I ac­tu­ally had to put into it, is tough in it­self,” Day said. “Be­cause you’re sit­ting there go­ing, ‘Man, that’s all I think about, is golf … and get­ting to No. 1 in the world.’ Say­ing all that is great, but if you don’t have the de­sire to get there, then there’s no use. You won’t get there at all.”

Day said he lost his de­sire when he lost his No. 1 rank­ing af­ter 47 straight weeks, and it wasn’t just golf.

He was deeply trou­bled at the start of the year when his mother was di­ag­nosed with lung can­cer and doc­tors in Aus­tralia of­fered a bleak out­look. A few months later, Day brought her to Ohio for more tests. She had the tu­mour re­moved and is do­ing so well that Day said she is back home, and even re­turned to work.

“Fi­nally, I can kind of take a breath and sit back and go, ‘OK, I need to start my trip back up the moun­tain again,’ ” Day said.

Get­ting to No. 1 was his life’s am­bi­tion. That might ex­plain why Day, un­like pre­vi­ous players who reached No. 1, speaks so openly about the pres­sure and de­mands.

Adam Scott en­joyed his 11 weeks at No. 1 in 2014, al­though Scott comes from a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion. Scott played when Woods was at his best and wasn’t sure he could ever get there. He added Colo­nial to his sched­ule when he reached No. 1 just to savour the feel­ing of show­ing up at the course as the world’s best player (he won that week).

For Rory McIl­roy, it was a mat­ter of find­ing the next moun­tain to climb, which Jack Nick­laus and Woods did so well.

“I think it takes just as much hard work to stay there as it does to get all the way up,” McIl­roy said. “And it’s golf, it’s life. There’s go­ing to be ebbs and flows in ev­ery­one’s ca­reers, and you just have to ac­cept that and re­al­ize that there’s go­ing to be some times when it isn’t quite what you want and it’s not go­ing your way.”

His long­est stay at No. 1 was 54 weeks — only Woods, Greg Nor­man and Nick Faldo have had longer stretches (Woods holds the record at 281 weeks from 2005-10).

McIl­roy has al­ways said that when the game is good, it’s hard to remember ever play­ing badly. And when the game is bad, play­ing great seems like a dis­tant mem­ory.

The moun­tain looks as high as ever for Day be­cause it’s been a while since he was play­ing great — and be­cause he’s try­ing to catch some­one who is.

CHAR­LIE RIEDEL/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS/FILES

Ja­son Day says it was his goal in Jan­uary to stay at No. 1 for the year. The 29-year-old is now No. 3 in the world rank­ings.

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