Coming off his first victory in five years, a win Jason Day thought might never come, the 35-year-old Australian is doing his best to keep expectations in check entering the PGA Championship.
Then again, once fearing his career might be over, the former No. 1 player in the world can draw upon the low moments from his recent past to keep him grounded at Oak Hill this week.
“I think it’s funny. After I won the tournament, it didn’t feel like much at all, and I say that in the most respectful way,” Day said Wednesday, referring to rallying from a final round two-shot deficit to win the Byron Nelson last weekend.
“I think it’s more about the actual journey,” he added. “Winning last week was a good step in the right direction in regards to knowing that the consistent work that I put in was yielding good play. All it had to to do was kind of show itself.”
It is, perhaps, a new Day.
In winning his 13th PGA Tour event, and first since the Wells Fargo in May 2018, Day has finally shaken the back problems which led to a gradual decline in his game since 2015-2016, when he combined for eight titles. The two-year stretch included Day winning his first and only major, the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he became the first player to finish a major at 20-under par or better.
After winning two more times in 2018, Day endured a four-year stretch in which he registered just 16 top-10 finishes and missed the cut 29 times in 79 events.
The bottom fell out a little over a year ago, when Day plunged to 175th in the rankings. Life was just as difficult off the course, where Day mourned his mother, who died last year following a lengthy battle with lung cancer.
“I was not only struggling mentally, but struggling physically, and there was a lot of doubt in my mind to think that I would ever come back and be able to win again,” acknowledged Day, who enters the weekend ranked 20th. “At one point I was sitting there going, OK, well, I didn’t know if this was kind of the end for me.”
To win on Mother’s Day was poignant enough. What the victory also did was validate the hints of progress Day began to see in his game since the 2022-23 season began in September.
In 16 tournaments, he’s enjoyed seven top-10 finishes — the most since he had 10 in 2016 — and missed the cut just three times, as opposed to doing so 16 times over his previous 41 tournaments.
“It’s like anything, once the momentum train starts, it takes a while to get things going. But once it starts, it starts to go pretty fast,” he said. “And if you can stay on that train for a little bit, that momentum can take you on to better things.”
Gratifying as it was to win, what also struck Day last weekend was the outpouring of support he received from fellow golfers.
Among them was Tiger Woods, who has formed a friendship with Day, with the two encouraging each other while dealing with their respective health issues. Woods’ career has been sidetracked by a rash of injuries, the latest involving him having ankle surgery last month.
“I can’t say what he said because a lot of it was like F-words,” Day said with a laugh in referring to Woods’ celebratory text messages.
Dustin Johnson, now playing on the rival LIV Golf circuit, knows first hand how good Day can play in having competed with him as an amateur in the 2000s, and again on the PGA Tour.
“He was one of the best players in the word. It’s good to see him back in good form and playing some good golf,” Johnson said Wednesday.
The key now for Day is to remain patient, which explains his approach this week.
Though unfamiliar with Oak Hill, Day elected against taking any practice rounds to conserve his energy. Mentally, he’s focusing solely on the first round and not the rising expectations he could entertain coming off a victory.
“It’s in my nature to expect bigger and better things, so I’m just trying to cool the jets on that,” he said, acknowledging how much of a mental trap high expectations were to him in the recent past.
“That was probably the hardest couple of years that I’ve had in regards to my competitive life,” Day said. “I think this time I’m trying to do it in a different way. I’m trying to be a lot more grateful for the opportunity that I have just because of what I’ve gone through.”
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