ATLANTA – Colin Swatton can remember the moment with impressive clarity given that memories tend to fade with time and the seemingly mundane conversation occurred nearly a decade ago.
It was the afternoon when Jason Day, a then-16-year-old wunderkind, wandered into Swatton’s office at Kooralbyn International School with a curious question for even the most accomplished professionals at the time.
“Do you think I can get to world No. 1?” Day asked.
Consider at that moment Tiger Woods held the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking by a commanding margin, nearly two average ranking points over Ernie Els, and that Day – who Swatton now concedes wasn’t even his most talented student at Kooralbyn, a sports-specific institution just outside of Brisbane, Australia – was fresh off his most high-profile victory at the World Junior Championship at Torrey Pines.
“I was taken back by it, to be honest,” Swatton said on Monday. “For him to come in and ask, I had to respect the question and I honestly believed he could be No. 1.”
Swatton explained that it wasn’t Day’s considerable skills that led him to that conclusion as much as it was the young Australian’s drive and a work ethic that bordered on the obsessive.
Given a task, Day would apply a single-minded focus that required constant supervision, or risk the prodigy overworking and reaching a point of diminishing returns.
On Monday, Swatton texted Day his recollections from that encounter at Kooralbyn in 2004 just after he’d confirmed on the Internet what everyone already knew, that with his commanding victory at the BMW Championship, Day had finally arrived at No. 1.
“It’s everything,” Swatton said, when asked what the World Ranking math finally added up to for Day. “It’s the belief that trust and work ethic and a combination of everything, to know that if you get a path and stay the course you can accomplish anything.”
It’s even more rewarding considering that the path Day took from Kooralbyn to a spot one-tenth of a point clear of No. 2 Jordan Spieth was winding and wildly uncertain.
But throughout injury, a litany of ailments too numerous to repeat, and indifferent play in the clutch, the pinnacle as defined by Day remained the same, so much so that he caused a collection golf scribes to recoil earlier this year when he said getting to No. 1 in the world would be more meaningful to him than winning a major.
Maybe that changed when he finally broke through the major ceiling in August at the PGA Championship, one of four victories he’s recorded on Tour in his last six starts, but the tune sounded familiar on Sunday at Conway Farms.
For the better part of a month, Day tried, as best he could, to pretend that ascending the world ranking was little more than a byproduct of all the hard work he’d logged over the years. But, in truth, it was essentially a psychological study in self-preservation.
“I've been in here the last four days, but it's been very, very difficult for me to try and downplay getting to No. 1, because I've really wanted to reach this goal for a very long time now,” he said on Sunday at the BMW, following his six-stroke victory.
Comparing his victory at Whistling Straits, where Day was overcome by emotion on the 72nd hole, to how things transpired on Sunday at the BMW was also difficult, the competitive equivalent of an apples-to-kiwifruit comparison.
Winning major championships has always been the measuring stick for those who ply the trade at the highest level.
Woods rarely talks about his cumulative 683 weeks atop the ranking, just as Phil Mickelson doesn’t lament, as least publically, his inability to ever scale the mountain.
For Woods, it’s always been Jack Nicklaus and those 18 major championships that set the benchmark for greatness. They acted as a ready reminder attached to the wall of his childhood room.
But the kid from Kooralbyn is wired differently when it comes to quantifiable greatness. For Day, and those of his generation growing up in Australia, it was Greg Norman who served the role of role model, and while The Shark's status as a major champion is impressive given his history of heartbreak, perhaps it’s simply a coping technique that Day would prefer to the top spot in the world ranking, which Norman held for 331 weeks during his Hall of Fame career.
“I just always had a vision of me standing on top of the Earth when I was a kid and knowing that right now there's no one on this planet that's better than me, that's pretty cool,” Day said.
“That out of all the golfers that are in the world playing right now, that I'm the best. It's such a good feeling. That's kind of what I was thinking back when I was a little kid.”
That “kid” who grew up idolizing Norman and those 331 weeks atop the world could appreciate like few others another text message exchange on Monday.
“Greg texted me and said, ‘Congratulations. Now do it for 332 weeks.’ That was really cool,” Swatton said.