Sportswriters crave thoughtful quotes from the athletes they cover, and we set the bar very low. Give us anything — the lame joke, the trite observation — and we’ll eat it up. It’s part of the agreement, and both sides have learned not to expect much from the other. But when an athlete exceeds expectations and actually manages to make us view his life — and therefore his sport — in a different light? That’s unprecedented.
Jason Day is one of those people. If you think of golf as a sport of privilege, the 26-year-old Australian is the man to challenge your notions. And as the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool begins today and he attempts to win his first major championship, it’s impossible not to think back to late February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and a quote that resonated in the media room for weeks.
Day currently stands as the no. 6 golfer in the world, but his win at the Accenture was only his second on tour — an abnormally low total for someone in the top 10. Even at a young age, for a player of such proven skill to have won only two events is remarkable. Part of that disparity is down to his youth, but as Day himself would be the first to admit, part of it is also growth. Part of it is learning how to win.
So when he finally broke his four-year drought at the Accenture and sat at the podium holding his trophy, we naturally wanted to know what had changed. Did this victory mean he could win “the big one”? It was a simplistic question, maybe, but important. To the public, you’re either a major winner or you’re not, and that’s what really matters, right?
“I’m going to be honest here,” he finally said. “I came from a very poor family. So it wasn’t winning that was on my mind when I first came out on the PGA Tour. It was money.
“I wanted to play for money, because I’d never had it before.”
Day was born in Beaudesert, a town nestled in the southeast corner of Queensland. Beaudesert has grown in the past three decades, but in 1987 it held about 4,000 people. He was the baby of the family, the third and final child of Alvyn Day, a native Australian, and his wife, Dening, who was born in the Philippines. Alvin worked on the kill floor of a meatworks while Dening worked in the office at the same plant. It wasn’t a profitable venture. The Days lived in poverty, to the extent that they would often forage for useful items at the town dump. On one trip, Alvin found an old 3-wood and brought it home to his son. Jason was 3, and he took to it immediately, using the club to smash whatever object was handy. This went on until he was 6 and finally met the minimum age requirements at the Beaudesert Golf Club. At that point, he was using a mixed bag of salvaged clubs.
Shortly after, Alvin found a new job at a meatworks in Rockhampton, a larger town seven hours north. While the move didn’t improve the family finances, it did give Jason more access to golf. It cost the Days $100 to buy Jason a yearlong membership to the Capricorn Country Club,1 which included unlimited golf. The more he played, the more he moved up Australia’s ranking system, which goes from D-grade to A-grade. Before long, he was B-grade, which allowed him to play a full 18 holes. He was nothing more than a child in a small town just west of Australia’s Pacific coast, but he was gaining a reputation. Then life tried to crush him.
When Day was 11 years old, his father began having unexplained stomach pains. Doctors dismissed it at first, but the pain persisted. Less than a month after he first had it checked out, Alvin was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died four months later. By his own reckoning, Jason went off the rails. He was only 12, but he began drinking, staying out late, and getting into fights at school.
“My dad was the strict one in the family,” Day said. “My mom was always the one that, after we got the belt, she would hug us and tell us it was OK. My dad … even if we said something wrongly — I remember saying ‘shut up’ one time, and he belted the crap out of me. But that’s just how it was. I mean, he kept me in line. And as soon as he passed away, you know, we all got out of line.”
After Alvin’s death, the family unit began to break down. One of Jason’s sisters ran away from home for three years, and his drinking got worse. Young as he was, he became an alcoholic. His mother knew he had potential as a golfer, and she made a desperate choice. By taking a second mortgage on her home and enlisting help from one of Jason’s uncles, she sent her son to The Kooralbyn International School, an independent boarding school known for producing top-tier athletes like gold-medalist track star Cathy Freeman and the golfer to whom Day would forever be compared, Adam Scott.
Day remembers the sudden, cold feel of the trip south the day he left home. “You drive seven hours down, you drop all your stuff on the front door, and you’re like, ‘Here you go,’ you know what I mean? It was strange.”
His new school was in the middle of nowhere, and the lack of surrounding temptations made it relatively easy for him to quit drinking and start focusing. The change wasn’t immediate. His stubbornness, and his issues with authority, quickly turned an early exchange with a coach into a shouting match. He and the coach raised their voices until they were swearing at each other, and it ended with Day storming off.
Alone, Day had a moment of personal reckoning. “I just thought, Man, that wasn’t a good thing to do,” he said. “I mean, my family’s trying to sacrifice so much to get me to come here. I should just kind of listen to him and see what he has to say. And from there, I went back and apologized.”
The coach’s name was Colin Swatton, and when Day was ready to head for America, Col was by his side as coach, caddie, and second father. He’s been there ever since.
Kooralbyn International closed in 2002 because of “funding issues,”2 and Day and his class moved 30 miles north to Hills International College in Jimboomba. It was there that Day borrowed a book about Tiger Woods’s teenage years and became alarmed at the scores he saw documented in the back pages. Where Woods was shooting 68s and 66s, Day was stuck at 74s and 72s.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Why is he shooting those scores?’” Day remembered. “‘Why is he so much better than me?’”
In 2000, at 13, Day won the Australian Masters junior tournament for his first significant victory, but he felt his game wasn’t improving fast enough, so his life changed again. He would wake up every morning at 5 a.m. and practice until 8:30. After sneaking in a half-hour breakfast, he’d be in school from nine to one — you can see the benefit of attending a sports academy — and after a 30-minute lunch, he’d be at it again, practicing until 6 p.m. Then dinner, then homework, and then it was out to the night range, where he’d hit under the lights until fatigue overcame him. Other players at school would try to keep up with his extreme schedule, but it was rare for any of them to last more than a week before the allure of sleep trumped their own lesser obsessions.
This new regiment led to Day’s breakout in 2004. At the age of 16, he won the Queensland Junior tournament, the touring Junior, the South Australian Junior, the Australian Junior, and the New Zealand under-19s. Then it was home to the Queensland Amateur, where he competed against players of all ages and became the youngest winner in 104 years.
The results were enough to get him to America, and Torrey Pines, for the World Junior. Only three players managed to shoot under par, and at 7-under, Day was the best of them. The next year, he finished as top amateur at the Australian Masters and the Australian Open. The last amateur event he ever played was the Australian Masters of the Amateurs in January 2006. He won with a gross score of 281.
The corporate men with the big checks had seen plenty. Day turned professional and signed a sponsorship deal with TaylorMade and Adidas. He was 18 years old, and his days of financial struggle had ended. From the moment he put his name on that first contract, he would never be poor again. Professionally, though, his trials were just beginning.
“I thought it was going to come easy,” Day remembered. “I thought winning was going to come easy because I’m like, ‘Oh, everything’s so natural.’”
Maybe that was the product of his short memory. Nothing had come easy before, but the success of the last two years must have seemed simple. Everything was progressing in a straight line. Day got sponsor exemptions into seven tournaments on the PGA Tour — his first chance to play with the big boys — and he and his team were optimistic (or naive) enough to hope he could earn his tour card for 2007 with a series of spectacular results. The ambition didn’t seem out of line.
Day made five of seven cuts and earned almost $200,000. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t nearly good enough. He was placed in the second round of PGA Tour qualifying school, where he finished in a tie for first. That allowed him to advance to the final round in December. The top 25 make the tour, while the losers wind up somewhere in golf’s minor leagues or quit entirely. After a whirlwind year, physical and mental fatigue overwhelmed Day, and he finished in a tie for 119th place — 15 shots away from earning his card. It wasn’t even enough to earn a full-time position on the Nationwide Tour (now called the Web.com Tour). All he had was conditional status, and suddenly the easy path to professional stardom had vanished.
In 2007, he started his Nationwide Tour career in Australia, finishing 31st at the Jacob’s Creek Open. He followed that up the next weekend with a tie for sixth in New Zealand. The money from those two finishes wasn’t huge, but they were enough to improve his status on the tour, and enough to return to America in April. His results there were frustrating, so he took the month of June to recharge and vacation in Japan with a friend.
“When I came back, I just felt like everything was lifted,” he said. “For some reason, I could just relax and not worry.”
Now, fresh off his Japanese vacation, he was back in America as a professional. Within a week of his return, the Nationwide Tour brought him to the Legend Financial Group Classic. With a score of 16-under, Day won his first professional event, taking home a cool $94,500 and becoming the youngest player, at 19, to win on any of the PGA’s three major tours.
He finished fifth on the Nationwide Tour that year and earned his PGA Tour card for 2008. From there, Day’s story goes from “How do you become great?” to “How do you stay great?” Golf was a struggle in 2008 — top-10 finishes would alternate with streaks of missing the cut for three, four weekends in a row — and after finishing 136th on the PGA Tour money list, he was relegated to conditional status in 2009.
“I slacked off a little bit,” Day admitted, “and didn’t really work as hard as I should have. My golf started declining after I got my card. It didn’t come easy. It was very, very tough for me. I came out and kind of was unprepared and didn’t do the work.”
Day redoubled his efforts in 2009. A second-place finish in Puerto Rico early in the year solved his status problems, and he went on to finish 69th on the PGA Tour money list. The next year, he won the first event of his PGA Tour career at the Byron Nelson Championship in Texas, and by all appearances, his career was on the verge of launching in earnest.
Yet the pattern of his career asserted itself again — just when things looked good, a new obstacle would land in his path. He struggled with illness and poor play the rest of the year, and even thought about quitting. He took most of June off, and as in 2007, it worked. A string of top 10s followed, including a tie for 10th at the PGA Championship, only the second major he’d ever played. He rolled through the FedEx Cup events and finished 22nd on the money list, a new personal best. Most important of all, though, was his new insight on what it took to win on the PGA Tour.
“What you have to do, when you get to that point where you’re in the fight-or-flight moment and you’re out of your comfort zone and you have a chance to win — you have to be like, Screw it, gotta punch through it, let’s go and do it,” Day said. “And when you do it, it’s the most rewarding because you actually got past that barrier. And once you get to that uncomfortable stage a lot, you’ll start feeling a lot more comfortable. And once you start feeling a lot more comfortable and know exactly what you need to do, then it becomes easier to win.”
That’s when he started coming very, very close in majors. Day finished second at the 2011 Masters and U.S. Open. Second at the 2013 U.S. Open, eighth at the 2013 PGA Championship. The most acutely he’s ever felt the pressure, though, came last year at the Masters.
Jason Day and Adam Scott are inevitably lumped together as Australians at the very top of the game, but in some ways, they’re opposites. While Day is gregarious and good at telling his story, Scott is shy and intensely private. While Day came to the sport from the most unlikely background, Scott is the son of golfing enthusiasts and enjoyed a more traditional path to the top.
Yet despite the differences, they share a trajectory that goes beyond their roots. In 2012, Scott led the British Open by four shots with four holes to play, seemingly poised to win his first major in a rout. What followed was a nightmare — four straight bogeys that allowed Ernie Els to back into the Claret Jug by a single stroke. The collapse invited comparisons to Greg Norman, and though Scott did his best to hide his pain, it was no secret the loss left him devastated. The question that followed him the rest of the season, fairly or not, was whether his entire career would mimic his failure at the British Open. Would he become the next Norman, another Australian with immense skill who couldn’t handle the pressure of a major championship?
Then came Augusta 2013. Late into Sunday’s final round, it looked like Day would beat Scott to the punch. The younger Aussie had shot up the world rankings by finishing ninth on the money list in 2011 and putting together a remarkable 24 top-10 finishes (despite missing much of 2012 with an injury) and a handful of seconds since his win at the Byron Nelson. On June 19, 2011, he broke into the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time. Life outside the course was good, too; in the summer of 2012 he and his wife, Ellie, had a son, Dash.
But there was one little anomaly: In three years of golf that had gone between good and great, Day never won a tournament. On its own, the stat was a little staggering; how could someone that good, who performed so consistently, never win? Day admitted he had been a little distracted in 2012 by the birth of his son, and that it was tough to watch a player like Rory McIlroy receive all the “next big thing” accolades when Day felt that he was just as good. As his focus wavered, his team intervened. “Work harder,” they told him.
He did, and there he was on Sunday at Augusta, leading the tournament with just three holes left. Now he had a chance not just to win, but to win the biggest damn tournament of them all. It would put every question to rest, and it would do so emphatically. But Day couldn’t push through. Bogeys on 16 and 17 dropped him back to 7-under, and when Scott and Angel Cabrera each birdied no. 18, he was relegated to third.
He admitted in the post-round interview that the pressure affected him, and the Monday before this year’s Masters, he elaborated. “When I walked up to the 16th tee, my whole body froze,” he said. “It seized up like never before.”
When he finished his round in 2013, though, he composed himself enough to tell anybody who would listen that he wanted Scott to win for Australia. He got his wish minutes later on the second playoff hole, when Scott sank a 15-foot birdie putt to win his first major and secure Australia’s first Masters.
As Day’s game reached a new level of consistency in 2013, he pulled off the amazing feat of earning $3.6 million and finishing 12th on the money list without winning a single event. Once again, the question changed. “How do you stay great?” was replaced by “How do you become so great that you beat all the other great players and win tournaments?”
Day is known as a fierce match-play competitor, and he knew that the Accenture, pitting the 64 top players in the world against one another in an elimination bracket, might be his best chance of the 2014 season to break through. He made the semifinals of the event in 2013, beating Zach Johnson, Russell Henley, Bubba Watson, and Graeme McDowell along the way, and he had already earned a reputation as a master at the head game. He’s known for making his opponents putt everything out (some players consider it a courtesy to concede the short “gimme” putts), and he’s not coy about the tactic.
“From zero to three feet, if you’re 100 percent in your entire life,” he said in 2013, “then I will give you putts.”
And he doesn’t care whom it pisses off, because he knows that most golfers, when angry, lose focus. Henley was one of his victims in 2013, though it nearly backfired when the Georgia native birdied the 18th to force extra holes before losing in 19.
Day made the Accenture a priority; a win there would prove a lot to himself and everyone else. His winless streak was now into its fourth year and beginning to accrue the worst kind of psychological and narrative momentum. It was time to make a move.
That Wednesday, he handled Thorbjorn Olesen easily in Round 1, but nearly lost the next day when he fell 3-down to Billy Horschel. He battled his way back, tying things up and forcing extra holes. Horschel was resilient, but Day outlasted him, finally prevailing on the 22nd hole. Then it was on to Friday and Saturday, when he beat two South Africans, George Coetzee and Louis Oosthuizen, to reach the final four. Now he could start to think seriously about winning the tournament; he’d survived the vagaries of the early rounds, and his game was on form.
At the Accenture, the semifinals and finals are played on Sunday, which meant Day would have to win two matches if he was going to take home his first title since 2010. The day began against Rickie Fowler, Day’s good friend, who had shocked almost everyone by making it this far. The surprise began on the first day, when Fowler beat Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter in the round of 64 (when a baby cried as Poulter was putting on 16, Poulter came off the green swearing), and continued as he rolled past Jimmy Walker, Sergio Garcia, and Jim Furyk.
Fowler’s hot streak ran out on Sunday, though, when Day pounced on him early, going 3-up through 11 and coasting to a 3-2 victory. That left just one match, and the opponent facing Day, Victor Dubuisson, was even more unlikely than Fowler. The then-23-year-old Frenchman was best known for beating Tiger Woods at a 2013 tournament in Turkey that nobody really watched, and the American golf establishment didn’t know what to expect as Dubuisson progressed. What they found was someone who hated speaking to the media more than any other golfer on tour, and someone who was absolutely fearless on the course. On his way to the final, he dispatched Watson, McDowell, and Els, three excellent match-play golfers with résumés that dwarfed Dubuisson’s.
Day was red-hot at the start, establishing another 3-up lead, but Dubuisson charged back, denying him the easy win. The Frenchman squared the match late, and the two were headed to sudden death. The win had been tantalizingly close for Day, and he felt that familiar urge beckoning: Enough is enough. Back down. In the face of the negative thoughts, he managed to steel his resolve, and on the first playoff hole, it looked like he had the tournament won when Dubuisson hit his approach behind the green. The ball came to rest at the base of a jumping cholla, stuck among the needles, seemingly unplayable. It was an impossible shot, but Dubuisson knew he couldn’t afford to take a drop and suffer a one-stroke penalty. So he took a swing, smashing a branch. Miraculously — at least to him — the ball hit off the desert, bounced onto the green, and rolled to within five feet. To Day’s disbelief, Dubuisson had set himself up for par. He made it, and the match continued.
If that great escape felt cosmically unfair, imagine Day’s state of mind when it happened again on the very next hole. Another errant approach, another ridiculous par. More disbelief from Day, this time caught on TV:
The next two holes were also halved, which brought them back to no. 15. The drama ended when Dubuisson’s long birdie chance went begging, and Day knocked his putt home. It had taken him almost four years, and he had to endure the greatest match ever played at the Accenture, but he was a winner again.
No accomplishment is ever quite good enough for golfers in the post-Tiger era. Rather than resolving anything, the victory only brought an old question back into play: Could Day, who had famously said he would challenge Tiger Woods for world no. 1 as a teenager in 2007, ever win a major?
It seemed as though his mental game had caught up to his physical skill at last, and that all the positive momentum could culminate at this year’s Masters. Still, patterns find a way to persist, and just as Day’s path to true stardom seemed to clear up, another obstacle emerged. At his very next tournament, the WGC Cadillac Championship, he was forced to withdraw because of a nagging injury to his left thumb, which he’d dealt with as far back as the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. An MRI came back negative, but the soreness was bad enough that he sat out six weeks.
There’s a definite irony that after overcoming poverty, death, and alcoholism, Day was being held back by something as small as a sore thumb, but there was nothing funny about his inability to grip a club without pain, much less swing with his usual confidence. Rest and cortisone shots followed, and he returned just in time for the Masters, where he overcame his rust to finish 20th. But he managed to aggravate the thumb injury on Saturday when he hit a tree root, and he was out for another six weeks. He came back at the Memorial, and two weeks after that, he quietly finished fourth at the U.S. Open while Martin Kaymer was lapping the entire field.
I last spoke with Day three weeks ago at a pretournament presser before the Quicken Loans National in Bethesda, Md., where he would go on to post 73-73 and suffer his first cut of the season. He said that before his injury, he’d thought he had a great chance to catch Woods and become the no. 1 player in the world this season. (More irony: After Woods’s own injury, the top spot went to — you guessed it — Adam Scott.) I asked him if, in his absences, he dealt with the loneliness that must come when a public figure is suddenly stripped of his public.
“Sometimes when you’re out here, you’re like, ‘Just leave me alone,’” he said, referring to the media and the crowds and the constant attention. “But then you’re by yourself on the couch alone, you’re like, I want to get back out there. … Looking back on it with the injury, like I said, I was playing a lot of things over in my head, a lot of negative things over in my head. And that’s why at the start of the week, I was always happy, and at the end of the week I was always moody. You see guys winning all the time, it’s like, ‘Why can’t I be out there competing and winning?’”
On the first day of the British Open, it’s tempting to find the answer to that question, and the one about winning a major, in his past. For Day, every new step in his career has required an adjustment, and a new choice. When you look at the broad story of how his career has developed, the setbacks matter less than that he’s always made the choices that let him move forward.
“Sometimes you just sit there and laugh,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling, because amongst the crap that was going on in my life, there were certain little opportunities that were put in front of me that I actually took. If I’d said, ‘No, I want to stay with my friends up in Rockhampton,’ and not gone to the boarding school, I wouldn’t be here today. If I said, ‘No, I’m still going to go play the par-3 course’ and ‘Screw my coach,’ I wouldn’t be here today.”
At one point, it was about money. Not anymore. Day believes that poor kids who strike it rich can go one of two ways — spending too much or saving compulsively because they remember the scarcity of youth. Day has traveled the latter path, to the point that his wife calls him cheap. He’ll spend money when he needs to buy something big, like a house or a car, and he paid off his mother’s mortgages, but as for anything frivolous? Forget it. This is a guy who’s still too amazed that he even has money to ever spend it. He’ll even go online to marvel at his wealth.
“I like looking at it,” he said, smiling at his secret habit. “I don’t want to sound like an idiot, but I like looking at my bank account and seeing the money.”
Next, it was about fighting complacency. He beat that twice, and has been cured of the myth that anything will come easy. Then it was about consistency, and climbing the world rankings, and there he sits at no. 6. This year, it was about winning, and he managed that, too. Finally, at age 26, we have the last professional plateau — a major victory — and perhaps the last obstacles in injury and bad luck.
When asked about those last few holes against Dubuisson at the Accenture, and holding up emotionally as the Houdini act played out twice, his response sounded a lot like the trajectory of his entire life in microcosm, as well as an answer to the final question.
“It was just like you’d turn the mountain and you’d see more mountain,” he said. “And like, god dang, you’d come to the part every time where you just felt like you just couldn’t go anymore.” He laughed, remembering the battle. “But I’m like, no. I’m going to push until I can’t push. If I need to play 36 more holes, if I need to come back Monday, if I need to come back Tuesday — I don’t care how long it’s going to take. I’m going to win, and I’m not going to stop.”
The odds are against him at the British Open as he struggles to rediscover his form, but the odds have been against him forever. For the poor kid from Beaudesert who started with nothing but a sawed-off 3-wood, the hard part of this journey ended a long time ago. The miracle was getting to the threshold; the price of a major is just four rounds of golf.