AUSTIN, Texas – His head in his hands and tears streaming down his face, Jason Day did what his mother, Dening, taught him – carry on.
It wouldn’t be on the golf course, not this week. The defending champion at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play had just withdrawn after just six holes, but even Dening would understand his motivations.
Some 1,200 miles to the north in Columbus, Ohio, Dening was preparing for something that was much more important than golf – even golf at the highest level.
Overcome with emotion, Day explained that earlier this year Dening was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was, essentially, a death sentence, with doctors in Australia initially telling her the ailment was terminal.
But about week ago, Dening arrived in Columbus, Ohio, to undergo a battery of tests at the Ohio State University Medical Center and her outlook improved.
“The prognosis coming here wasn’t very positive. But now that she’s been here, they are more optimistic,” said Bud Martin, Day’s manager. “They feel like it’s something that hopefully, God willing, that it’s manageable.’
Dening is scheduled to have surgery on Friday and although Day arrived at Austin Country Club with the best of intentions, because that’s what Dening would want, six holes into his opening-day bout with Pat Perez the enormity of the moment caught up with him.
“It's really hard to even comprehend being on the golf course right now because of what she's gone through,” Day said. “She had a test done in Australia, and the doctor said she was terminal and only had 12 months to live. I'm glad I brought her over here. It's been really hard to play golf lately.”
When Day’s father, Alvyn, died of stomach cancer when the would-be major champion and world No. 1 was just 12 years old, it was his mother, Dening, who pushed her son forward.
It was always Dening.
When Day fell in with the wrong crowd following his father’s death, it was Dening who worked two jobs to send the prodigy to a sport-specific school where he met Colin Swatton, who would become his swing coach, caddie, confidant and father figure.
“My mom took a second mortgage out on the house, borrowed money from my aunt and uncle, just to get me away from where I was to go to school, seven hours drive,” Day recalled after winning the 2015 PGA Championship, his first major triumph. “I mean we were poor.”
It was Dening who would cut the lawn with a knife because the family couldn't afford to fix the lawn mower. It was Dening who would heat up kettles of water for showers because the Day’s home didn’t have a hot-water tank.
Day’s truly remarkable story is often lost among his golf accomplishments, but his tale of perseverance is straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. He was always talented, incredibly driven and, eventually, lucky enough to cross paths with the likes of Swatton, but throughout it all it was Dening who was equal parts moral compass and motivational beacon.
Dening sacrificed so Day could attend Koralbyn International School in Queensland, and his desire to build a better life for Dening and his sisters drove him to be better, to be the best.
Some ascend to greatness driven by the desire for fame and fortune or the adrenaline rush of competition, but Day simply didn’t want to let Dening down. Not after everything that she’d done for him.
Throughout that less-than-ideal childhood, Dening always maintained a brave exterior. She had to for her children.
“I had to be tough,” she told the New York Times last spring.
So on Wednesday at the Match Play, Day walked away from the game, not because he wanted to quit – Dening would never allow that – but because he was tough enough to understand that something much more important was unfolding in Ohio.
Day didn’t take questions after his withdrawal. He probably wouldn’t have been able to contain his emotions had he tried. The Masters would be his next start, and Martin said he’s certain Day wants to play the first major but it depends on Dening’s health.
But even the Masters, which Day has made no secret is the tournament that means the most to him, doesn’t hold much appeal if Dening’s future is still uncertain.
“I just need some time away with her to make sure that everything goes well because this has been very, very tough for me,” Day said. “I'm going to do my best and try and be there the best I can for her because she is the reason that I'm playing golf today. And family is first.”
Martin spoke with Dening a few days ago and despite her own medical issues her matriarchal instincts remain as sharp as ever.
“The most important thing in her world is him playing golf and being happy,” Martin said. “I said, ‘I hear the news seems to be getting better. I want to make certain you are there during his Hall of Fame speech.’ She loves it.”
On Wednesday, it was the best of Dening that prompted Day to walk off the course, to be there for her, to carry on.