We shouldn’t have been surprised, though.
We knew he had to have locked away a sea of emotions coming so close on all those major championship Sundays, in all those failed chances to win his first major. You feel like you’ve got one arm in a green jacket at the Masters, one hand on a U.S. Open trophy and one hand on the claret jug, there’s a lot of heartache in losing.
Day’s wife, Ellie, said she wasn’t surprised by Jason’s tears, but not for the reasons you might think.
“He cries at funny things, like movies,” Ellie said standing on the 18th green in the wake of victory.
She said watching the movie Wall-E with their 3-year-old son, Dash, makes Jason emotional.
“That movie makes Jason choke up,” she said.
Jason and Ellie cried together after she galloped onto the 18th green with Dash after that last putt fell. She knew what hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy meant to her husband. It was, more than anything, Jason’s reward for enduring failure, for learning from it and ultimately overcoming it.
“If I didn't have that failure, I wouldn't be standing here today with the trophy,” Day said. “Some people get there quicker than others. Some people make it look easier than others. I'm just glad that it's finally happened, because it was kind of wearing on me a little bit.”
His triumph washed away some frustrating memories ...
Day birdied the 17th and 18th holes in the final round of the Masters in 2011 to take a share of the clubhouse lead only to watch Charl Schwartzel close with four consecutive birdies and leave him tied for second. Day had the lead with three holes to go at the Masters in 2013 but bogeyed two of the last three holes to finish second again. He had a share of the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open this summer only to watch Jordan Spieth win, and he had a share of the 54-hole lead at the Open Championship last month only to see Zach Johnson win.
With the lead going into yet another final round Sunday at Whistling Straits, losing this one could have been more crushing than any of those other losses.
“It would have been very tough for me to come back from a major championship such as this, if I didn't finish it off,” Day said. “Knowing that I had the 54-hole lead, or was tied for the 54-hole lead for the last three majors, and not being able to finish, it would have been tough for me mentally. Even though I feel like I'm a positive person, I think that, in the back of my mind, something would have triggered, and I would have gone, `Maybe I can't really finish it off.’”
With just a 6-inch putt left in the end to lock up his three-shot victory over wunderkind Jordan Spieth, Day’s mind couldn’t help racing. He couldn’t help thinking how long a journey that little putt would actually travel with all the sacrifice that went into it. He couldn’t help thinking about his father, Alvin, an Irish-Australian who died of stomach cancer when Jason was 12. About his mother, Dening, who was born in the Philippines, and how she made sacrifices getting him into a golf academy. About Ellie, Dash, and the couple’s expected second child, due in November. About his caddie, Colin Swatton, who has become like a father to him and is also his swing coach.
“That's why a lot of emotion came out of me,” Day said. “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, a seven-hour drive.
“I remember growing up. I remember watching my mom cut the lawn with a knife because we couldn't afford to fix the lawn mower. I remember not having a hot water tank, so we used a kettle for hot showers. My mom would come bring three or four kettles in, just to heat them up. And it would take 5-10 minutes for every kettle to heat up.”
Day’s mind raced to how Swatton stepped in as more than a coach and caddie.
“He’s been there for me since I was 12½ years old,” Day said. “He’s taken me from a kid that was getting in fights at home and getting drunk at 12 and not heading in the right direction to a major champion winner.”
Those are the kind of powerful thoughts that came flooding into Day’s head knowing he was going to win Sunday.
“Walking up 18, knowing that I've got the trophy, it was just hard,” Day said. “I was trying to hold back tears, and when I saw the putt go up to half a foot, I just couldn't stop crying. It's just a lot of hard work that I've been putting into this game to dedicate myself to have a shot at glory, to have a shot at greatness. And that's what we all work towards. It's a good feeling.”
The way Day finally broke through was especially rewarding. With Spieth the favorite, trying to win his third major championship this year, Day sensed how much people were rooting to see history. He gave them history, all right, just not the kind they expected. He closed out with a 5-under-par 67 that got him to 20 under overall. Nobody’s ever gone that low in a major before. He broke the 19-under total Tiger Woods won the British Open with in 2000.
“It was fantastic,” Spieth said. “We play a lot of golf, and we played a lot of major championship rounds together, and that was the best I've ever seen him play.
“He's impressive to watch strike the ball, but it was nothing like today. He took it back, and he wailed on it. It was a stripe show. It was really a clinic to watch.”
Ellie could have said she sensed the victory coming, but it was more than that. She said Jason told her he was going to win coming to Whistling Straits. Over the last three months, especially since losing the British Open last month, she said he’s been different.
“There’s a whole shift in him in the last few months,” Ellie said. “I’ve been saying it forever. He’s worked harder than I’ve ever seen him. In the last couple months especially, I’ve just seen this change in him. I don’t know if it’s his comfort level, or his confidence, but this was just going to happen.”
It was as if Jason knew he was doing everything he could, that he was working as hard as he could on his game with Swatton, and that he was doing all he could in the gym with trainer Cornell Driessen.
“I don’t know what it is, he’s just grown up in a lot of ways,” Ellie said. “In the last couple months, it seems like a switch has just flipped. I think that comes with him putting in all the work. His body has physically changed. The way he eats, the way he exercises. He’s just so committed in every single way.”
That’s where those tears came from, knowing that it wasn’t just his commitment, but the commitment of so many people around him was being rewarded.