PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There was a time players trying to close out a victory didn’t want Tiger Woods in their heads.
They didn’t want him trashing things in there, rattling focus, smashing confidence and busting up their plans to win a trophy.
Tiger is in Jason Day’s head now, but this Tiger, the circa-2016 Tiger, is a welcome guest.
For Day, having his idol as a mentor is a good thing, but not so much for all those players Day is learning to beat with regularity.
With his four-shot victory Sunday at The Players Championship, Day has now won seven of his last 17 PGA Tour starts. Three of those were wire to wire, including this week’s virtuoso performance at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Day showed the growing versatility of his game this past week, navigating through changing conditions so extreme it seemed as if he won on two entirely different golf courses.
Day, 28, won pounding driver and attacking flagsticks in a record assault on a soft course over the first two days. He won tying the course record with a 63 on his way to setting the 36-hole scoring record of 14 under. And he won scrambling on the weekend, holing one clutch putt after another to save important pars as the course grew firmer, faster and more severe.
In the end, Day led the field in both driving distance (311.6 yards per drive) and scrambling.
That’s seven titles over the last nine months for Day, five more victories than Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott, the only other players to win more than one PGA Tour start over that span.
“Well, that's Tiger-esque, that kind of a run,” said Scott, a fellow Aussie. “I try to imagine how good Tiger felt playing five years into his pro career and having won 50 events. Imagine how you'd feel confidence-wise?
“Jason must be feeling something like that at the moment. That’s an incredibly nice way to walk out on the golf course, and you can see it with Jason.”
Scott played a practice round with Day this week.
“You can see there's that calmness inside him, calm confidence,” Scott said. “The way he's walking around, he's got that kind of unbeatable look about him.”
Colin Swatton, Day’s caddie and swing coach, said he isn’t privy to what insights Woods may be passing along to Day, but he sees real benefits showing up in Day’s game. He says the benefits are intangible, things you can’t necessarily define.
“I’ve definitely seen a change, not necessarily in how Jason plays, or how he goes about his business, but I definitely see a little bit more trust and belief in himself,” Swatton said. “I can see a lot more confidence, and that’s a very, very hard thing to get, especially if winning would make you confident, but it doesn’t always do that. I guess Tiger’s a very, very good person to go to. He’s arguably the best player in the world, and that has been my advice to Jason in the past, to lean on people who can make you better. I definitely think Tiger can do that.”
Day didn’t look so confident on the front nine Sunday, where his ball striking wasn’t crisp. He hit just three fairways on the front nine and just three greens in regulation and didn’t make a single birdie.
At the ninth, Day looked like he might be channeling the wrong Tiger Woods, when he chunked and fluffed three consecutive chips from the greenside rough. Day took three swipes to advance his ball 25 feet to the green.
“Felt like an amateur chopping my way to the pin,” Day said.
Day holed a 6-foot putt for bogey there. He called that putt the most important shot of his round because a miss would have shrunk his lead to a single shot.
“If I walk away with double bogey, I let in everyone in the field,” Day said. “That gives them a boost of energy.”
Day said the putt settled him down and helped him close hard on the back nine. He made his first birdie of the day at the 10th and didn’t give the field another opening. He refused to beat himself, closing with a bogey-free 33 on the back side.
That finishing flourish, it was as if Day wanted to impress Tiger.
“I don't know Tiger’s record for closing 54-hole leads out, but I think it's very high,” Day said. “I think he's only lost maybe one or so.”
Actually, Woods has held the 54-hole lead in 45 PGA Tour events and closed 43 of them.
Day said Woods offers him more than generous advice in their texts and phone calls. Woods motivates him to keep strengthening his hold on the world No. 1 ranking. Day widened his gap over No. 2 Jordan Spieth while extending his run atop the rankings to eight consecutive weeks.
“Tiger says he's going to kick my butt when he comes back, so I'm going to try and extend that gap, so if he does come back and he has turned into Tiger Woods again ... I've got to kind of watch my behind,” Day said. “Yeah, that's the main goal and main reason why I'm trying to extend that lead, so that I stay on top.”
Day isn’t the first player of this generation to connect with Woods, but he’s the first to parlay Woods’ reservoir of knowledge into something Tiger-esque.
Woods’ influence on Day can be overstated. Day is his own man. He plays his own game. He carries the No. 1 ranking his own way, with refreshing candor and openness. He’s different in Tiger in so many ways, and yet Tiger is the model of excellence that continues to shape Day’s dreams.
Day’s thinking big now. He said this victory was important to him because of its Hall of Fame ramifications. He says he’s burning with ambition.
“I look at that 10 PGA Tour wins, and I say to myself, `That’s not enough,’ and it isn't enough for me,” Day said. “It's just 10. I want more than 10.
“I look at Tiger, and he's got 79, or whatever it is, and Phil [Mickelson] is up there. I'm like, `OK, I want to be looked back on as one of the greats in the game.’ I'm going to try my best. I have the opportunity to do that right now, to try and work as hard as I can to really leave my footprint in this game, that has given me so much.”