AUSTIN, Texas – One week after we celebrated the passing of a King in Florida, life knocked loudly on the door once again on the PGA Tour, casting a solemn shadow on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Jason Day, the former World No. 1 who now sits at No. 3, walked off the golf course after six holes of his opening-round match against Pat Perez. This time for the oft-injured Aussie, it wasn’t his ankle, or his wrist, or the balky back that has slowed the 29-year-old at various times.
This time, it was his heart.
Day’s mind wasn’t on golf in Texas, but instead consumed by thoughts of his mother, Dening, who is back in Columbus, Ohio, awaiting surgery on Friday at Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital. Dening (who’s real name is Adenil) has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and Friday’s scheduled surgery is to remove what her son said is a “3- to 4-centimeter mass.”
When she visited doctors back home in Brisbane, Australia, where she still resides, doctors told Dening that her cancer was terminal, informing her that she might have 12 months to live. She is not yet 60 years old.
So Day, given his resources as a multi-millionaire athlete, flew her from Australia to Ohio to seek several other medical opinions, and there seems to be some light and hope in her prognosis, according to Day and Day’s longtime agent, Wasserman’s Bud Martin.
“Now that she’s been here (in the U.S.), they are more optimistic,” Martin said. “They feel like it’s something that hopefully, God willing, is manageable.”
Day said playing golf this season with his mother’s dire prognosis on his mind has been challenging to say the least, and frankly, he hasn’t been playing to his usual standards. He has made five PGA Tour starts in 2017, with a tie for fifth at Pebble Beach his top finish.
Wednesday at Austin Country Club, Day’s emotions simply bubbled over. The seventh hole at Austin Country Club comes back near the clubhouse, and Day, 3 down to Perez, walked off the course.
“I mean, once again it’s been a very, very hard time for me to even be thinking about playing golf,” said Day, who had to gather himself through tears to speak. “And emotionally it’s been wearing on me for a while. And I know my mom says not to let it get to me, but it really has.
“So I just need some time away with her to make sure that everything goes well because this has been very, very tough for me. So I’m going to do my best and try and be there the best I can for her because she is the reason that I’m playing golf today. And family is first and it’s just … it’s just a hard time.”
Jason Day, a father of two, lost his father, Alvyn, to cancer when Jason was only 12. His father had been an alcoholic who’d spent time in several rehab facilities, and he was physically abusive to Jason at times when it came to his golf, striking him after poor play.
After his death, Jason’s life soon began spiraling down a negative path. As a teen, he said he drank alcohol himself, and he would get into fights. It was his mother who would save him. She would scrape together enough money by re-mortgaging their small home and working several jobs to send Jason, who had shown some early promise in golf, off to the Kooralbyn International School.
Kooralbyn was a six- or seven-hour drive from where the Days lived, but Dening was wise enough to realize it might be her son’s best chance to make something of himself. Her gamble would pay off.
When he won the 2015 PGA Championship, his first major, Day, spoke about his humble upbringing with his mother and two sisters.
“I mean, we were poor. … I remember watching her (Dening) cut the lawn with a knife because we couldn’t afford to fix the lawn mower,” he said. “I remember not having a hot water tank, so we had to use a kettle for hot showers. So, you know, we would put the kettle on and go have a shower, and then my mom would come bring three or four kettles in, just to heat them up. And it would take five, ten minutes for every kettle to heat up.”
At Kooralbyn, Day would meet an instructor by the name of Col Swatton, who not only remains his instructor today, but his caddie, too. Swatton is very much a father figure to the golfer. Day was posing for pictures with his giant PGA Championship trophy on the 18th green at Whistling Straits in 2015, and a photographer asked if he could take a shot with just the family.
To which Day instantly yelled, “Col, get over here!’
The two have formed a great tandem, and eventually Day rose to No. 1 in the world.
“It’s pretty well documented that Jace could have been on the wrong side of the tracks,” Swatton said of Day in a 2015 interview. “When he was 12 years old and sent to Kooralbyn, it’s true, he could have easily gone the other way. He would have been in a totally different spot.
“He was always wanting to get better, he always wanted to play professional golf, and his goal was to be the No. 1 player in the world. I helped him try to achieve that.”
Asked about the home situation Day emerged from, Swatton said the family had very little. “His mum was working two jobs to pay his tuition to come to the golf academy,” he said.
Day’s mother knows her son is happiest when he is playing golf, so surely she will be urging him to be playing at the Masters in two weeks. On Wednesday in Austin, he showed up physically to defend his title, but his heart wasn’t there. He didn’t belong in Texas. And that was fine.
“It’s been very, very emotional, as you can tell,” he said. “I’ve already gone through it once with my dad. And I know how it feels. And it’s hard enough to see another one go through it, as well.”
Friday, instead of taking on fellow Aussie Marc Leishman in the third session of the Group 3 round-robin, Day will be with his mother in Ohio, and hoping that all goes right with her surgery.
“He feels bad about withdrawing, as any champion does,” said Martin, his agent. “He just couldn’t go on competing. I mean, the most important thing to him in his world right now is being with his mom Friday during that surgery.”
Day, hand-in-hand with his wife, Ellie, headed to the parking lot to their courtesy car, and then they would be bound for Ohio. There will be other World Golf Championships, and this was the right thing to do. His heart said so.
His mother always has been there for him. And now the dutiful and devoted son will take his turn.