Day: No. 1 spot 'still on my mind'
The circumstances of Jason Day's victory in the individual portion of the ISPS Handa World Cup at Royal Melbourne stole the headlines, as they should. To win after losing several relatives, including his grandmother, in the deadly typhoon in the Philippines was shades of Ben Crenshaw winning the Masters in 1995 after burying his mentor, Harvey Penick.
But I was also struck by the significance of Day ending a long victory drought and doing so in Australia, the country where he grew up.
Day, the 2006 Australian amateur champion, left seven years ago in pursuit of fame and fortune in America and didn't return until shortly before the 2011 Presidents Cup was held in Melbourne.
Day never meant to be away from his homeland for so long. There were injuries to his back and wrist that needed tending, appearances at PGA Tour Q-School in 2006 and 2008, a honeymoon with wife Ellie, an American he married in 2009, and sinus surgery during the 2010 off-season, which kept him away.
After two runner-up finishes in the majors in 2011, Day returned Down Under as the second-ranked Aussie, and No. 8 in the world. He lived one of his dreams when he was paired for the first time with Tiger Woods for the opening two rounds of the 2011 Australian Open in Sydney. Day fashioned his game after Woods, his childhood idol, tacking posters of Woods's swing on his wall and reading as many books about him as he could.
"That's why I woke up every morning at 5:30 and went out and practiced," Day said. "I got up to 32 1/2 hours a week of practice because of that guy. He has influenced my life a lot. I've always wanted to play against him."
Those with long memories still recall how shortly after earning his PGA Tour card on the Nationwide Tour in 2007, Day boldly predicted he would be No. 1 in the world by the time he was 23. Of Woods, he was quoted as saying, "I'm sure I can take him down."
Chalk it up to youthful exuberance by Day, who celebrated his 26th birthday Nov. 12, and struggled to back up his words.
"Being No. 1 has always been a goal ever since I practically picked up the golf club. I've always wanted to get to that No. 1 spot,” Day said Tuesday at a press conference before the Emirates Australian Open. “We had a goal, me and Colin (Swatton, his longtime swing coach and caddie), when we first met, back when I was 12 or 13, that we wanted to become the No. 1 player in the world. We had a goal to get there at 22. We ended up getting to No. 7 at 23, so we fell short, but it's still on my mind to get to that No. 1 spot. It's so tough with Tiger being at the top. You have to be working harder than him. You have to be playing well every week. I have to improve each and every year."
Day’s lone victory at the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Championship included a shaky finish. At the 2011 Presidents Cup, his game was out of sorts and the pressure of performing in front of the home crowd seemed to get to him.
Dressed in their knee-high socks, rugby jerseys, and green derbys, the Fanatics serenaded him at the first tee. "It's going to be a bright, bright, bright sunshiny Day," they sang in his honor to the tune of the Johnny Nash ballad.
But Day went a gloomy 1-3-1 and was a big reason the International team fell flat on home soil. For all his success this season, which included a third-place finish at the Masters and a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open, Day failed to win.
At the Masters, Day led by two strokes with three holes to go. Victory seemed within his reach until it wasn’t. He bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17, and finished a stroke outside the playoff in third place.
“The pressure was unbelievable,” Day said after the round. “Sometimes it makes you want to run and hide underneath a rock.”
That’s why winning in Australia last week felt like it could be a major step forward to winning a major in the not-too-distant future. But first his sights are set on the Australian Open this week at Royal Sydney.
"It's one of the tournaments that I've always wanted to win,” Day said. “It's huge to an Australian. So many great names . . . have won the trophy. To one day hopefully put my name on the trophy would be an amazing honor.”
If and when he does, it will certainly will be a bright, bright, bright, sunshiny day.