SAN DIEGO – Last year at this time, Jason Day truly believed he was on the verge of becoming the No. 1 player in the world.
Then he hyperextended his thumb.
Then he suffered a bulging disc in his back.
And then he thought, Well, here we go again.
Dreams of that top spot faded. Again. He watched Rory McIlroy script one of the best seasons in recent memory and open up a huge lead in the rankings.
“It was bad timing,” Day said Sunday, shaking his head. “Really bad timing.”
A few months ago, he sat down with his team (caddie/swing coach Colin Swatton, mental coach, trainer and agent) and said, essentially: Now what?
Day couldn’t go through another injury-plagued season, not after a depressing summer in which he seriously contemplated what he was going to do, and whether he was going to be able to play to the level he was capable.
That elite level was on display again Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open, where Day erased a three-shot deficit with a 2-under 70 and defeated J.B. Holmes on the second playoff hole.
“I needed this win,” he said. “I really wanted to win.”
Once again No. 4 in the world, Day says he’s never been more motivated than he was this offseason – “I really wanted to kick butt” – and it’s easy to see why.
He was tired of watching Rory dominate.
He was tired of feeling like an underachiever.
He was tired of battling injuries.
For the first time in his career, he didn’t jot down goals for this season. With only two Tour titles in seven years, Day didn’t say that he wanted to have a bunch of top 10s, or to win multiple times, or to capture a major title. No, he simply said this: He wanted to give 100 percent – in every tournament, every round, every day.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I don’t want to go through life thinking about what if I tried a little harder. If I can put in 100 percent every day, really give it a good shot, then at the end of my career I know that it’s been successful, because that’s as much as I could do.”
Last year felt like Day’s breakthrough. He authored a stirring performance at the WGC-Match Play, a victory that he thought would soon propel him to No. 1. But his hyperextended left thumb only got worse. He withdrew from Doral and didn’t play again until the Masters, when he tied for 20th despite not hitting a practice ball for two months leading into the event.
That lingering injury affected him for three months, and it even forced him to weaken his left-hand grip to alleviate some of the pressure. There was the bout with vertigo at Firestone. And eventually, that ailment gave way to another – a bulging disc in his lower back that sidelined him at the BMW Championship. After gutting out a T-4 at the Tour Championship, Day shut it down for the better part of three months, scrapping his obligations in his home country of Australia so that he could focus on rehabbing and building up strength in his thumb and back.
The process was all too familiar. For years Day has been labeled as one of the Tour’s immensely talented but injury-plagued stars. Every time he seemed close to surging forward, he broke down and retreated. An injury to his ankle. His wrist. His thumb. His back.
What followed was the usual finger-pointing, the hushed discussions that Day swung too hard, practiced too much or was just too brittle for a full Tour slate.
“We said one year where you’re fully healthy, it’s going to be a big year,” Swatton said. “This is the start.”
So don’t underestimate the importance of winning this event, in these U.S. Open-like conditions at Torrey Pines.
“If you have a big year you have to win early,” Swatton said. “This will calm him down, but it’ll also give him the sense to say all the hard work is worth it, and the hard work will pay off. From here it’ll only help him stay focused, stay hungry and definitely want to chase Rory down.”
In his last seven OWGR events, Day has a win and six finishes of seventh or better, with a scoring average over that span of 68.36.
On the world’s biggest stage there is a void waiting to be filled, with a diminished Tiger Woods, a dominant McIlroy and a host of occasional winners in pursuit.
Firmly committed, Day is now fully prepared to challenge for No. 1.
As usual, he just hopes he can stay healthy.
“It’s obviously going to be tough to try and catch him,” he said, “but that’s why we are here. We love to compete, and we love to try and see what we’ve got.”