LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The statement was made on a conference call on Nov. 27, 2007, or a lifetime ago.
Sitting on his mother’s bed, Jason Day told a pool of Australian reporters: “I want to chase Tiger (Woods) and my goal is to become the No. 1 golfer in the world. That’s been my goal since I was a little kid. If I work hard on what I need to, I’m sure I can take him down.”
He was sharing his goals and ambitions, his hopes and dreams. It was an innocuous comment, one that would hardly garner any attention in today’s look-at-me culture. But no one challenged Woods’ throne, especially not some cocky 20-year-old who hadn’t even played on the PGA Tour, and especially not then, when Woods’ dominance was so oppressive that it stunted the careers of many extravagantly talented players.
After hanging up the phone, he remembered thinking, That might not go over so well, and sure enough, the boldfaced quote made every national newspaper. The next day, Day staggered into coach Colin Swatton’s office at The Kooralbyn International School in Queensland.
“What did I say wrong?” he asked. “Everybody wants to be the best golfer in the world. They don’t want to be second or third, do they?”
“I don’t know anyone that wants to aspire to just be OK,” Swatton replied. “It’s OK to have a lofty goal and want to be the best player in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
TV commentators still ripped him. Fans teased him. His fellow Australians scoffed at his suggestion – “I think the No. 2 spot is available right now,” one woofed – and wondered why the kid would provoke the great champion.
“Everyone kind of laughed,” Day says now, “and that’s OK. That’s the dream that I’ve always had.”
No one is laughing now, of course.
Day’s six-shot victory here at the BMW Championship confirmed what has been made abundantly clear over the past few months. After a late-summer stretch when the top ranking was passed around more often than an offering plate, Day has emerged as the undisputed No. 1, putting the world’s best on notice with a tantalizing display of power, precision, finesse and determination.
“It’s the culmination of 16 years of work and trust and belief,” Swatton said.
Day finished four days at soggy Conway Farms at 22-under 262, six shots clear of rookie Daniel Berger. It was Day's PGA Tour-leading fifth victory this season, and fourth in his last six starts. Don’t submit your Player of the Year ballots just yet.
This, you see, was exactly what Day had in mind for this season. More motivated than ever, he declared after his playoff win at Torrey Pines that he really wanted to “kick butt” this year and challenge for the No. 1 spot.
At the time, he was dismissed – again.
He wasn’t a good enough closer.
He couldn’t make the putts when it mattered.
He was living in Rory’s world.
Injuries to Day’s back, wrist, thumb and ankle – and a few scary bouts with vertigo – had always provided a convenient narrative for his underachievement, but Day suggests there was a missing piece from his repertoire.
Long one of the most talented players on Tour, he won only twice in seven years. With so many near misses in majors – nine top-10s in all before the PGA – he developed a tremendous amount of scar tissue for someone in his age-27 season.
A shame, too, because his mind used to be so clear. As an amateur, he walked onto the course and knew that he was the man to beat. Every Tour pro feels that way to some extent, or he won’t be out here long, but Day said he’s spent the past seven years trying to convince himself.
“How do you believe in yourself,” he said, “when you don’t know what to believe in?”
Yet to hear Day, his career breakthrough came not at Whistling Straits, where he broke the 72-hole scoring mark, but at St. Andrews, where he left his birdie bid on the last a few inches short.
For the first time, he said, “I was letting it unfold and not forcing the issue.”
Now, four wins later, the lid has been blown off.
Now, whatever doubts existed have disappeared, lost in a flurry of birdies during his stirring comeback in Canada, his macho performance at the PGA, his flawless weekend at the Barclays and his relentless attack at the BMW, where he dominated in wire-to-wire fashion and never led by fewer than four shots on the weekend.
Now, he needles Woods – who spent a record 683 weeks at No. 1 – and bounces ideas off of him. They discuss little things, like stress control and course management and handling success, but those tidbits empower him.
“I had confidence,” Day said, “but I didn’t have the ‘I’m going to go out there and beat everyone here’ confidence.”
Of course, golf at this sublime level is leased, not owned. That confidence will be tested, maybe even next week at East Lake. Soon he will wonder how it ever came so easily, how he pounded his driver so long and so straight, how he willed all of those putts into the cup.
For now, though, he just wants to enjoy his golf, and the realization of a dream.
This goal to become No. 1 first materialized when he watched Woods’ game-changing victory at the ’97 Masters. A few years later, before heading to the 2004 Junior World Championship, he asked Swatton: “Do you really think I can be the best player in the world?”
“Absolutely,” Swatton replied. “You’ve just got to listen, be patient, work hard, and eventually you’re going to get there.”
After that victory at Torrey Pines, the then-17-year-old devised with Swatton a four-part plan – with technical, tactical, physical and mental “buckets” – to reach the pinnacle of the sport by the age of 22. He’s nearly six years late, but who cares? He’s there now.
Day was asked Sunday night what the younger version of himself would say to all of the detractors back in late 2007.
“I’d love to say I told you so,” he said, “but that wouldn’t be very nice.”
Instead, he hopes that the statement, the backlash and the eventual fulfillment are a reminder that it’s OK to dream big.
“I always had a vision of me standing on top of the earth when I was a kid,” he said, “and knowing that right now there’s no one on this planet that’s better than me, that’s pretty cool. That out of all the golfers that are in the world playing right now, I’m the best. It’s such a good feeling.”