Jason Day, the newly minted No. 1 player in the world golf rankings, always will remember the week before the 2011 Masters. He felt so badly about the state of his game he honestly believed his first encounter with Augusta National could very well be his last.
“I was sitting across the road (from the course) in a bus,” he recalled this week. “Had my agent, my wife and a sports psychologist with me and we’re just sitting there. And I’m like ‘I just do not like the game right now. I’m having a very, very hard time picking up the golf club to even just enjoy myself out there.’
“So we come to the conclusion of saying ‘this might be my last Masters ever playing. I may as well enjoy it.’ So I went out there and finished second. And then I loved the game again.”
And how he’s loving life and the game at the moment.
The Australian native vaulted to No. 1 two weeks ago when he prevailed in the WGC Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas, despite a balky bulging disc in his back that has plagued him since he was a teenager. That triumph, with a 5 and 4 victory over Louis Oosthuizen in the final, came only a week after he’d won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando wire-to-wire, his first career victory in Florida.
Now 28, Day earned his first major title last August when he dominated the PGA Championship with a 20-under total at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, the first player in the game’s history to go that far under par in a major championship. He broke the record of 19-under set by his one-time idol and now good friend Tiger Woods, in the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews.
Day has no delusions about matching Woods’ all-time record of 683 weeks at No. 1 (not consecutively). And despite his own lofty ranking at the top, he also doesn’t think he’s the Masters favorite, even after his recent back-to-back victories.
Woods hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego and won’t be getting to the first tee here Thursday. He’s still recovering from three back surgeries over the last 19 months. And without him around to dominate the game, Day also knows this is a new era in golf, with scads of his fellow 20-somethings—and many others—capable of winning this or any other major for the next decade, if not longer.
“There’s not just one heavy favorite this week, which is fantastic,” Day said. “I think it’s good for the game and it’s good for this tournament, as well. The competition is very stiff. It’s really tough with how everyone is playing. Jordan (Spieth, the defending Masters champion), and Rory (McIlroy) are young guys and we’re all kind of motivating each other. Rickie (Fowler), as well, all motivating each other to try to play better each and every week and each and every year.
“And then you’ve got the 30-somethings, which you guys call the old ones now. They’re not that old, and they’re still very capable. Adam Scott and Bubba Watson are doing a fantastic job. It’s really fun to see how the health of the game is right now and how competitive it is. I guess that’s what we love the most, the competitive nature of everything.”
Tom Watson, now 66 and playing in his final Masters this week, made it a point Tuesday to compliment Day and his young contemporaries for reasons beyond their skills inside the ropes.
“I’m very impressed about how they play the game,” Watson said. “But I’m equally impressed by how they handle themselves outside of just playing. They are generally nice people. They help people out. They really do. They treat the fans well. All in all I think the game is in great stead right now. It’s really cool.”
This past February, Day sought some help himself. He reached out to Woods, quizzing him on a variety of subjects, including how he could peak just in time for a major championship.
“If you’re going to pick a guy’s brain, he’s the guy,” Day said, adding that he also asked Woods about “practice and balancing and dominating for so many years. And every time—I can’t count how many times—he said effort and mindset. Everything had to do a lot with the mind.”
Day and many others said this week they’ll miss Woods not playing for the second time in the last three years. He also insisted he embraces the conventional wisdom that so many of his fellow millennials—and even 45-year-old Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion—can win on Sunday.
“I want the best playing against the best and fighting it out,” he said. “If I end up not wearing the green jacket but I have a fantastic competitive match on Sunday against the best players in the world, that’s what I’m there for. I thrive off that competitiveness. I would enjoy a Spieth-McIlroy-Fowler-Scott-Watson-Mickelson Sunday.
And he’s hardly alone.