SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – As rain pelted down on boggy Baltusrol, creating rivulets that cascaded off the first tee on Sunday, Jason Day took the high ground, smiling like a man with a secret.
There was no hint of the illness that limited his preparation this week to a single practice round or the stress he spoke of last month to hold his position atop the mathematical world ranking mountain.
He is the defending champion. He is the world No. 1. He is Jason Day.
Day had a chance to do what his idol Tiger Woods never did, win a major from the pack with only Jimmy Walker, perched a shot clear after two soggy and segmented days at the PGA Championship, standing between himself and his second major.
Only Woods, who turned Day’s life around when the then-teenaged Australian read a book about Tiger’s rise, has won back-to-back PGA Championships since the event switched to stroke play.
From the outset things didn’t go Day’s way. He bogeyed the first after missing the fairway wide right and the third after missing wide left to fall a field goal behind.
Without his A-game, however, Day scratched his way back with birdies at Nos. 5 and 9 to make the turn one back, because, well that’s what the world’s best player does.
“On days like this, you've just got to keep pushing yourself harder than anyone else, mentally more so than physically,” Day said.
By the time he arrived at the 17th hole Day was two shots behind Walker with back-to-back par 5s waiting like a canvas poised for his most recent masterpiece.
A par on No. 17 seemed to derail his title chances, but from the middle of the final fairway he hit the “best” 2-iron of his life from 241 yards, a high cut held against the damp breeze that landed 13 feet from the hole. His eagle putt was followed by a Tiger-esque fist pump as Day gazed back down the fairway to where Walker was waiting. Some would call it a glare, but Day really doesn’t do that.
Day didn’t win the 98th PGA Championship, his closing 67 coming up one stroke short, but he certainly solidified himself as the game’s most dominant player with a runner-up finish that five days earlier seemed wildly unlikely.
“He’s clearly the best player in the world. He’s been quite outspoken in wanting that. The bits of time I do spend with Jason on or around the course he walks and talks like it, too,” Adam Scott said. “He’s completely in his little world right now is what I feel and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
He’s won seven times on the PGA Tour in the last 12 months and in his previous seven major starts he’s finished outside the top 10 just once, at last month’s Open where he swooned to a 22nd-place showing.
Along the way he’s dismissed the competitive dogma that had clouded his game, winning his first major last year at the PGA Championship, his first title in Florida at this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players in a rout.
But his Garden State performance may be even more impressive because of what it represents, more than what he failed to accomplish.
Although Day was reluctant to give his game a grade this week, the record speaks for itself. He arrived a day later than he normally would after playing last week’s RBC Canadian Open, took a sick day on Tuesday because he was feeling under the weather and saw Baltusrol for the first time Wednesday afternoon after a late-night trip to the emergency room Tuesday when his wife, Ellie, came down with a case of hives.
Throughout it all he remained in contention. He remained relevant.
For all the talk of a Big 4 in golf after Dustin Johnson won last month’s U.S. Open, Day waded through the distractions and doubt and mud to give himself a chance at winning a major with an inspired finish regardless of how the numbers on the leaderboard fell into place.
“For some reason, I just enjoy the moment of trying to step up and hit shots like I did on 18 and being in contention. I couldn't even tell you why I love competing and playing in them,” Day said.
That’s a long way from the guy who at Oakmont talked of the stresses of being world No. 1, of the pressure to prove, either to himself or those outside the fishbowl, he deserves to be atop the global pack.
From the time Day cracked open that book about Woods’ ascent to greatness he’d dreamt of holding the top spot, but when he arrived – first in September 2015 and again this March – there was something inherently at odds with the fame the title brings.
Outgoing and often accommodating to a fault, Day is at heart a homebody with little interest in the trappings of success. But over time he’s learned that it’s not the summit that he covets as much as it is the work it takes to get there.
“He’s said he’s not comfortable with it, but he’s embraced the challenge. He says he doesn’t feel comfortable - he looks pretty comfortable,” Scott said.
Jason Day is not Tiger Woods. Truth is, there may never be another Tiger, not with the margins at the game’s highest level so thin the difference between winning and losing often measured to the right of the decimal point.
But what Day has done, what he did at Baltustrol, was Tiger-like. Winning with your best stuff is always impressive; contending with something less than your best is what truly great players do.