EDISON, N.J. – For a time, unraveling the mystery of Jason Day had been an exercise in psychology.
To observers far and wide he was a bona fide five-tool guy from the moment he arrived at the PGA Tour doorstep in 2008. So much talent, so much desire, so many ways to come up painfully short.
Long even by bomber-circuit standards with decent touch and unfiltered confidence, the meteoric rise we’ve come to expect from such phenoms was slow at first, with his maiden Tour victory coming in 2010, and then seemingly nonexistent.
He came up short to history at the 2013 Masters when Adam Scott became the first Australian to slip into one of the coveted green jackets, an accomplishment many thought Day was destined to achieve.
He was squeezed by the tight confines of Merion at the 2013 U.S. Open, slowed by vertigo at this year’s national championship at Chambers Bay and stunned when his birdie putt at the 72nd hole last month at St. Andrews missed its mark.
For all the power and potential there was something missing, some unquantifiable element that stood between Day and his destiny. That is, until he arrived at Whistling Straits last month.
At the PGA Championship Day overcame the Sunday pressure that had become such a firewall to his major hopes, the season’s best player in Jordan Spieth and arguably the year’s most demanding golf course to break through a grass ceiling that, in retrospect, was of his own making.
In short, student had become teacher.
That missing element, however esoteric, no longer stands between Day and what he hopes to accomplish, as evidenced by his commanding victory on Sunday at The Barclays.
“It's just something that you have to fail,” said Day, who finished his week in New Jersey a half dozen shots ahead of runner-up Henrik Stenson after a final-round 62. “You fail and you learn. The moment that you start thinking about, 'I can't close, I can't close,' that's when you start not believing in yourself. That's the worst thing you can possibly do.”
Whatever the missing pieces, Day acquired them honestly, through hard work and even harder losses.
Since that heartbreak at the Home of Golf in July, Day has finished first (RBC Canadian Open), 12th (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational), first (PGA Championship) and first (The Barclays). During this “dog days” run through the late summer, he’s played his last five events in 73 under par against some of the season’s deepest fields.
Day’s four victories this season are double his career total before 2015 and yet, at least statistically, there are no elephants in the room that would neatly explain the change in his championship fortunes.
Putting is the simplest of answers, but that would be a gross oversimplification considering that he’s always been one of the circuit’s better putters.
Maybe a more detailed explanation would be dramatically improved lag putting, like when Stenson gave Day something to look at on the leaderboard on Sunday, moving to within two strokes with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 13 and 14. Your new FedEx Cup front-runner answered by rolling in 61 feet of birdie putts at the 14th and 15th holes.
On paper it would explain how Day, who hasn’t ranked outside the top 30 in strokes gained-putting the last five seasons, is second on Tour in putts outside of 25 feet this year, converting 10 percent from that neighborhood.
That improvement, like most things in Day’s ascension to world No. 3 – he can overtake Rory McIlroy at No. 1 next week at TPC Boston depending on a wide range of scenarios, but one milestone at a time - was not by accident.
“We changed the way he was doing his lag putting,” said Colin Swatton, Day’s caddie and swing coach. “We’ve always worked on lag putting, but we upped the ante a little bit and started putting into the hole from 25 or 30 feet instead of just putting to a mark, that way you get more focused on making the putt instead of just getting it close.”
He made plenty when it counted on Sunday at Plainfield Country Club, adding a 27-footer for birdie at No. 10 to his bombs at the 14th and 15th holes, but it was a 5-footer for par at the 13th hole just as Stenson was closing the gap that was the turning point according to Day.
It’s simply human nature that fans remember the walk-off birdie putt from a mile away but rarely talk nostalgically about the gritty par save somewhere on the back nine. Those small battles, however, are a fundamental part of Day’s transition from perennial also-ran to preemptive favorite.
“He was trying too hard to win before. I think he was just getting in his own way,” Swatton said. “Now, he’s allowing those wins to come to him. He’s not trying to force things and make it happen, not hitting the shot that he wants to hit but the shot that he needs to hit.”
As elementary as that might seem, evolution, call it a competitive maturity, is the only explanation that makes sense considering where he started in ’08, filled with potential yet lacking the extra gear that champions find.
“It's not easy, I can tell you that,” Day admitted. “Even though it may look easy, it's not easy. I'm still nervous. I still had thoughts on the front nine, Am I going to win it? But over the years it's starting to become a lot easier.”
Maybe it just seems easy because for so long Day made winning, and conversely losing, look so hard compared to the show he’s putting on now.