Jason Day has long been viewed as one of the PGA Tour’s supremely talented players – a powerful, driven 20-something who had forged a solid start to his career, and tantalized peers and observers with his potential, but ultimately had few big-time titles to show for it.
Five days in the desert changed that narrative – barely.
The 26-year-old Australian captured his first World Golf Championship event Sunday at Dove Mountain, where he squandered a late 2-up lead, withstood a few all-world short-game shots from Victor Dubuisson and held on to win an epic Match Play Championship final in 23 holes. It was the first time that the Match Play final has gone into overtime since the inaugural event in 1999, and the longest-ever final match.
“Obviously I didn’t want it to go this long, but Vic, man, he has a lot of guts,” said Day, who earned $1.53 million for winning the five-day, six-round event.
This one sure didn’t start out like an instant classic, with Day winning Nos. 6, 7 and 9 to take a 3-up lead into the back nine. And it sure seemed like it would be Day’s week when he nearly holed his third shot (from 269 yards) on the par-5 11th. But he watched as Dubuisson began chipping away at the advantage, first by winning the 13th with birdie, then by sinking a must-make 10-footer on 17.
Then came the dramatics.
Day three-putted the final green for bogey, while Dubuisson made a dazzling up-and-down from the greenside bunker to push the match into overtime.
On the first extra hole – the par-4 first – Dubuisson launched his approach into the desert behind the green, his ball settling near a jumping cactus and behind a TV cable. Somehow, he slashed out to 5 feet for the halve.
It seemed like the match would end on the next hole, only Dubuisson had other ideas. Just like in regulation, his approach into the par-4 ninth tumbled into the desert left of the green. This time, he straddled a cactus and hacked out to 7 feet. Watching from behind the green, Day could only shake his head and laugh. Of course Dubuisson buried the putt to extend the match.
After halving the next two holes, the players headed to the drivable 15th. After sending his drive right of the green, Dubuisson couldn’t get his flop shot anywhere near the hole, sending it to the back of the green, about 30 feet away. With a slightly better angle, and from the intermediate rough, Day was able to chip to 3 feet and make birdie – his first won hole since No. 9.
Dubuisson, vying to become the first player to win in his WGC debut, was a relative unknown to many in the U.S., but he showed his match-play chops by knocking off Bubba Watson, Graeme McDowell and Els en route to the finals.
The 23-year-old Frenchman pocketed $906,000 for runner-up honors and should move inside the top 25 in the world rankings. What’s more, his star-making finals appearance here would seem to make European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley’s decision that much easier.
“You’re going to see a lot of him for years to come,” Day said of the former No. 1-ranked amateur.
As for Day, it has been 45 months since he broke through at the 2010 Nelson. Just 22 at the time, he seemed poised to add to his victory haul in a hurry. It didn’t quite pan out that way, however, as Day battled a nagging wrist injury and started a family with wife Ellie.
Though winless on Tour since 2010, Day recorded a victory last December at the World Cup – not an official Tour event – and in recent years has become one of the most consistent performers in the majors. Since 2011, he has five top 10s in golf’s biggest events, including a pair of top 3s in 2013 (led Masters with four holes to play).
Now, the former wunderkind – in 2007, at age 19, he won on the Web.com Tour – is expected to move to No. 4 in the world rankings. He finally has another title to go with all that promise, and a hard-fought WGC at that.
“The biggest thing was how much do I want it,” Day said. “I kept saying that to myself last night. I’m glad I could finish it off, but it was a close one.”
Meanwhile, in the consolation match, Rickie Fowler birdied the first extra hole to defeat Ernie Els and grab solo third, netting him $630,000. Els took home $510,000.