At Quail Hollow, Jason Day jumps back in the mix

Jason Day Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

At Quail Hollow, Jason Day jumps back in the mix

PGA Tour

At Quail Hollow, Jason Day jumps back in the mix

CHARLOTTE – In North Carolina on Friday, there should have been a banner: Welcome back, Jason Day.

Day has found 2017 to be a bit of a “mixed bag,” a year of uncharacteristic struggle on the golf course and family health challenges off it. The former World No. 1 has been stuck in neutral while several others have flown right over him.

But the 99th PGA Championship on Friday seemed to represent something of an awakening for Day the golfer, who seemed like his old self. He was driving it long and on a string (averaging 317.7 yards), and rolling the ball great (26 putts, including 10 one-putts), two areas of his game that have held him back. Combining that hot putter with a golf course that became more receptive by afternoon rains, Day blistered Quail Hollow to the tune of 5-under 66, and is firmly in the mix heading into the weekend.

It only feels as if he hasn’t been there for a long, long time.

“It’s been slowly building,” Day said of his game and the momentum he has been looking to ignite. “It felt like the old days, which was only last year. It feels like 10 years ago.”

Day, 29, who has won eight times in the last two seasons (including his first major, the 2015 PGA), hasn’t contended often in 2016-17. On the course, his short game and putting – usually a strength – have let him down, which in turn has added pressure to his long game. To compound matters, he has not driven the ball up to his usual standards. With the exception of a runner-up finish at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May, Day mostly has been a bystander on a sidewalk, watching the PGA Tour season pass on by.

His hunger is there, though, and that’s a good thing. He can accept the struggle as long as he is giving his all and working hard to improve. On Friday, he finally got the putter going, which was a nice respite. In one eight-hole stretch beginning at the par-5 seventh, he made an eagle and five birdies to steadily climb the board.

Day hit 8-iron into the 546-yard seventh after busting a majestic drive of nearly 330 yards, just as he had two holes earlier to get his adrenaline pumping. This is what he has been waiting to see. He had only 175 yards to the front edge at 7, and executed the perfect shot, his ball pitching on the front edge and finishing inches from the hole for eagle.

With that, he was off and running. Just like the “old” days.

“It has been a funky year,” said Col Swatton, Day’s longtime coach and caddie. “He’s told everyone what happened earlier in the season (with his mom’s health scare), and as I said to him, it just takes time to get everything back into gear, in practicing, in getting your head right. Obviously, you try to push a little bit to make it happen. I think I’ve been just trying to let him know, be patient, it’s a process, and every week you’re getting a little bit better. Keep reinforcing that the signs were there, but just not look at the result.

“Unfortunately, most golfers are result-oriented, and they look at a score as a measure, and sometimes it’s not. Today was what you expect to see out of Jason.”

Day ranks 53rd in strokes gained-putting this season after leading the category a year ago. From 10 to 15 feet, he ranks 94th on Tour (making 31.17 percent) after making 41.8 percent a year ago, again leading all players. As a result, his scoring average (70.5) has slipped from second a year ago to 50th. As a result, he hasn’t held a trophy since The Players in May 2016.

Off the golf course, Day’s mother, Dening, has been dealing with cancer. She underwent an operation in Columbus, Ohio, in March, when her son suddenly departed the WGC-Dell Match Play, but she since has returned home to Australia, where she works.

“It’s been a mixed bag of everything, really, to be honest,” Day said earlier this week. “I think with what happened at the start of the year with my mom, I mean, it was very difficult for me to be on the golf course and even think about actually playing at the time.”

Not that he has used it as an excuse, and not that he doesn’t see his play this season as valuable as he tries to get back to No. 1. It took Day several years to become a prodigious winner on Tour, and he feels the seasons that led him into the success of 2015 (five wins, first major) and 2016 (three wins, including the WGC-Dell Match Play and The Players) were pivotal in his climb to golf’s apex.

“It’s improving,” said Day, who followed his PGA triumph at Whistling Straits in ’15 with a runner-up performance to Jimmy Walker last year at Baltusrol. “I’m improving each and every day now, and actually I’m hungry again and I’m looking forward to trying to beat these guys here in a bit. But I’m very motivated right now. Like I want to win again. So I’m excited about that.”

On Friday, finally, everything was back in place. A couple of booming drives, some quality irons, and a torrid putter that brought back some dominant times of not so long ago. There were signs of good play at the Open Championship, and more last week in Akron, but everything wasn’t quite there. Friday, that changed.

“Being able to piece it together is difficult,” Day said, “because the driving and the putting has been lagging behind. But I’ve been working very, very, very hard and I was in this current plateau of not really doing good in either, but I was just waiting for it to just jump up – which it did today.

“Hopefully it would be nice to be able to keep that going over the weekend.”

He has two tough players to run down, one very gritty (Kevin Kisner) and one ultra-hot (Hideki Matsuyama). But Day has been there before, and knows the drill. And Friday at Quail Hollow, he looked the part of a golfer that few others could conquer.

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