PINEHURST, N.C. – If you walk the grounds at Pinehurst this week you will be surrounded by avid golf fans, true devotees of the game.
And yet if you ask this question, chances are you will not get a correct answer: Who finished second to Justin Rose in last year’s U.S. Open at Merion?
That’s easy, right? Phil Mickelson finished second and declared it the biggest heartbreak of his career.
Mickelson did finish second at Merion – his sixth second-place finish in a U.S. Open. But he didn’t finish second alone. He tied for second with … wait for it … Jason Day.
Day has finished second twice in the Open - 2011 in the Rory McIlroy runaway at Congressional and last year at Merion when, like Mickelson, he was in contention until the last few holes. In his first Masters, in 2011, he tied for second - two shots behind Charl Schwartzel. Last year he finished third at Augusta, two shots shy of the Adam Scott-Angel Cabrera playoff.
It is easy to forget that Day is still only 26 because he’s been on so many major leaderboards, even though his first one wasn’t until the 2010 PGA, where he tied for 10th. He hasn’t made it look easy, but he has made it clear he can play very good golf when the heat is on. Just not quite good enough - yet - to get where he wants to go.
“I’ve been close in a few majors now,” he said Tuesday. “So close you can almost taste it. It’s disappointing and encouraging at the same time. It really is all how you look at things. I can stew on it and say I kind of have blown a major or two or I had a real opportunity to win and I just didn’t quite get there.
“But I look at it as experience. I just have to keep giving myself the opportunities. If I can put myself there more and more and more, it’s bound to happen.”
If it happens this week at Pinehurst, you can bet much will be made of the fact that Day’s father, Alvin, who gave him his first golf club when he was 3, passed away, a cancer victim, when Jason was 12. Now that Jason is a father himself - his son Dash will be 2 in July - the Father’s Day theme that frequently dominates an Open Sunday would be very much in play - just as it was a year ago when Rose blew a kiss skyward to honor his dad after his final putt on 18.
Day has thought about what it might mean to him to be in that position. “I know, watching Rosie last year, his dad passed away and just for him to talk about what the impact his father had on his life, to be able to recognize that and say it in his speeches, you know it’s pretty special,” Day said. “Hopefully, one day Dash will be able to see me playing and winning tournaments, not only the U.S. Open, but other tournaments as well. And we can look back on it together as father and son and really enjoy it and have those memories that go a long way. Because I never really got to experience that with my father.”
Day has never been one to dwell on setbacks - the biggest one being his dad’s death. This year he’s dealt with injuries - one to his thumb and one to his knee - that set him back after he won the Accenture Match Play in February. He appeared poised to make a serious run at being ranked No. 1 after that victory jumped him to No. 4.
Instead, he had to take time off, tried to play through pain at the Masters - finishing tied for 20th - and then had to take another few weeks off to try to allow the thumb and knee to heal.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “I’ve been icing my thumb and taking anti-inflammatories every day just to make sure that it doesn’t pop up again. If it’s going to pop up, it’s going to pop up.”
Day arrived in Pinehurst on Friday so he could play his way into the tournament without pushing his body too hard. He played nine holes Tuesday and took Wednesday off to rest for his early tee time Thursday. He’s played only once - the Memorial - since the Masters, so this might not be his week to win a major - yet.
Either way, Day will handle what comes with grace because he’s a remarkably mature young man. When he was asked Tuesday about losing his father at an early age he made the point that, as sad as it was, he isn’t the only person to deal with that sort of loss.
Day was 19 when he made it through the first two stages of Q-School and played what was then the Nationwide Tour in 2007. He and Erik Compton, who has had two heart transplants, became friends during that year.
“Spending time with Erik taught me a lot about life and about adversity,” Day said. “We golfers tend to get pissy if we get rained on for 15 minutes. Or if the wind changes on us during a round. I saw what Erik had to go through every day just to get to the first tee - the pills, the headaches he gets all the time - and it made me realize that I’ve suffered some loss but I’ve got a pretty easy life right now. In a sense, I was lucky to find that out even before I got to the Tour.”
He became the youngest player ever to win on that tour in July 2007 and was on the PGA Tour in 2008, shortly after turning 20. He won for the first time in 2010 at the Byron Nelson Classic and has steadily improved since. His ability to deal with what comes – whether near-misses in majors or injuries at inopportune times - makes it easy to forget that he’s still just a kid when it comes to golf.
On Tuesday, someone pointed out that the two Australians who have been ranked No. 1 - Greg Norman and current No. 1 Adam Scott - were both in their 30s when they reached that ranking. Day won’t be 30 until July 2017.
“Yeah, I’d like to do that (be No. 1 before 30),” he said with a grin. “It would be awesome just to be No. 1 in general but I really want to achieve that No. 1 spot before I’m 30. And then get into my real peak of my golfing career and see what I’ve got.”
Based on what he’s shown, Day appears to have plenty. And plenty more still to come.