SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The prognosticators figured it would be a Tiger-esque performance – and it was, only not by the player everyone thought would deliver.
Jason Day came full circle on Sunday after having started what some were beginning to see as a misguided major quest at Whistling Straits when he tied for 10th at the 2010 PGA.
Five years after that first brush with Grand Slam greatness the affable Australian laid a Heisman on the field with a near-flawless round and then both hands on the Wanamaker Trophy, the 27-pound chalice that had started to feel like the weight of the world on Day’s broad shoulders.
Unlike so many times in his career, there were no missed putts at crucial moments like at the Open Championship, no debilitating bouts with vertigo like at the U.S. Open and, most importantly, no heartbreak.
This time the five-time Tour winner – who as a gangly 12-year-old showed up at the Kooralbyn International School in Australia with a decent but not spectacular game and a 460cc-sized chip on his shoulder – didn’t allow fate to intervene on another’s behalf.
Day forged his way into the lead heading into Sunday at a major for the third time this season with a third-round 66. He defied the unseen forces and internal demons that had made him a perennial bridesmaid at the biggest events through utter force of will.
He birdied the first, fifth, sixth and seventh holes in what quickly became a dart-throwing contest to maintain his two-stroke lead and never allowed anyone, not even Jordan Spieth, to get any closer on his way to a closing 67.
“It was probably the hardest round of golf I’ve ever played,” said Day, who came up five strokes shy to Spieth at the U.S. Open and one shot out the playoff at last month’s Open Championship. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t know how tough.”
The PGA has historically been the more user friendly of the four major championships in terms of scoring, but as a warm morning turned to a scorching afternoon the year’s final Grand Slam gathering descended into a skins game with players trading birdies and boring down on historical scoring records with each swing.
For the record, Day’s 20 under total is a new major championship mark for relation to par. Not bad considering they’ve been playing these things for 155 years.
Spieth, who found himself in a familiar spot late on a major championship Sunday, finished the year 54 under par in four Grand Slam starts. That’s four strokes better than the previous mark set by Tiger Woods in 2000.
While red figures may not be everyone’s brand of vodka when it comes to major championships, the scoring frenzy did entertain.
In order, Branden Grace, Justin Rose and ultimately Spieth all made spirited runs at Day, but the kid from Kooralbyn – a sports specific school on the outskirts of Australia’s Gold Coast where the notion of golf greatness first took root – answered every challenge.
Grace rolled in birdie putts from Manitowoc to Mequon – the Cheeseheads in the crowd know what that’s about – to move to within two shots before the turn, but was ultimately undone by a double bogey-6 at the 10th hole.
Rose also cut Day’s advantage to three shots with a birdie at the 11th, but a hole later faded with a double bogey at the 13th.
And finally Spieth, of course it would be Spieth, cut the deficit to three shots with a 15 footer for birdie at the 13th hole, but Day continued the volley with a birdie at the 14th hole.
The only moment that passed as even remotely tense came on the 15th hole when Day teed off with a four-stroke lead with four to play but made bogey, and briefly conjured up memories of another Australian (Adam Scott) who had a commanding four-shot lead but collapsed at the 2012 Open Championship.
Day would have none of it.
In the ultimate show of respect, Spieth shot Day a thumbs up sign after he lagged a lengthy birdie putt to within inches at the 17th hole for what felt like a walk-off par.
From there Day took the walk up the 18th hole with a three-shot cushion that not even Dustin Johnson and one of Whistling Straits’ ubiquitous bunkers/sand boxes could mishandle.
“We play a lot of golf and we’ve played a lot of major championship rounds together and that was the best I've ever seen him play,” said Spieth, who at least enjoyed the consolation of overtaking Rory McIlroy atop the World Golf Ranking with his runner-up finish at Whistling Straits. “He's impressive to watch strike the ball, but it was nothing like today. He took it back and he wailed on it and it was a stripe show. It was really a clinic to watch.”
Spieth, who could have joined Woods and Ben Hogan as the only men to win three majors in one year in the Masters era, instead closed with a 68 to put the finishing touches on the best major championship season since Woods collect three in 2000.
His bid to hit for the Grand Slam cycle came up two swings short, the first from the Valley of Sin at the Open Championship and then along the shores of Lake Michigan when he tugged his second shot into a bunker left of the 16th green. He ended up making birdie on the hole, but he needed something truly heroic.
Spieth’s perceived lack of driving distance has always been a question mark, or maybe it’s an easy out for those who struggle to pinpoint his brilliance, but those who have played and lost to the twenty-something contend he’s long enough at 76th on Tour just after Retief Goosen and just before Jim Herman.
Yet while that game plays well if you are putting like Spieth at, say any of this year’s other majors, on Sunday it proved to be too much of a handicap against Day.
For the week, Day averaged 305 yards off the tee and was third in the field in driving distance. In practical terms, he was able to dismantle the par 5s (playing them in 15 under) thanks to drives like his 382-yard effort on No. 11.
“[Spieth] said to me in scoring, ‘Man, there was nothing I could do,’” Day said.
For so long it felt like there was nothing Day could do to shed his major monkey, but that all started to change when he rebounded from his St. Andrews swoon with a clutch performance at the RBC Canadian Open and arrived at Whistling Straits with a different, even demur, outlook.
“I sensed this week he was more relaxed and calm,” said Colin Swatton, Day’s swing coach and caddie who began working with him when he arrived at Kooralbyn. “At a major sometimes you can get consumed by everything that’s going on, but this week he didn’t allow that to happen.”
Day had found so many ways to lose majors, from V (vertigo at the U.S. Open) to Z (Zach Johnson at the Open Championship), one would have thought he’d simply run out of roadblocks. But this time neither vertigo nor unseen vulnerabilities would deny him.
Twenty years after Steve Elkington became the last Australian to win the PGA Championship Day hoisted the same trophy, but his achievement went well beyond the numbers on a scorecard or a chapter in the history books.
Your scribe first met Day in 2007 at a Web.com Tour event in Australia, and the then-19 year old didn’t flinch when asked what he wanted to accomplish in golf.
“I want to be No. 1 in world,” he said without a trace of false modesty.
His victory at Whistling Straits moved Day to No. 3 in the World Golf Ranking, but for the first time since he formulated that dream as a 12 year old it seems a lot closer.