SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – It’s hard to imagine now looking at images of a smiling, athletic young man with the photogenic wife and precocious young son running about that there was a time when this dream could have just as easily been a nightmare.
On Sunday at the PGA Championship, with the azure hues of Lake Michigan as a back drop, Jason Day completed a journey that started with the Australian fittingly perched on the deep end.
“It’s been pretty well documented that Jason could have been on the wrong side of the tracks. It could have easily gone the other way, and he would have been in a totally different spot,” said Colin Swatton, Day’s caddie and longtime swing coach. “He wouldn’t have been standing on the 18th green at Whistling Straits. He’s come a long way to be here today.”
It’s roughly 9,800 miles from Kooralbyn – a small country town, which is Australian for remote, about an hour west of the shimmering beaches of the Gold Coast – to Sheboygan, Wis. But for Day it’s the metaphorical distance he’s traversed that matters most.
The trek began 14 years ago not long after Day’s father, Alvin, died of stomach cancer and the gangly 12 year old decided, as many children do in times of crisis, to act out.
He got in trouble, hung out in the wrong circles and alarmed his mother, Dening, enough that she took a second job, scraped together just enough money and sent Day to the Kooralbyn International School, a sport specific institution where she hoped he’d find a purpose.
Things didn’t go well at first between Day and Swatton, who was Kooralbyn’s golf instructor at the time. Day was angry and obstinate, Swatton was methodical and entrenched to the point he painted lines on the sidewalk at Kooralbyn that were exactly one yard apart to teach students how to correctly pace off yardages.
“We had a little disagreement initially, but from that day forward he dedicated himself to being the best player in the world,” said Swatton, who evolved into something of a surrogate father for Day. “He put more hours in and worked harder than anyone else.”
And like that Day went from obstinate to obsessive. Swatton once told Day to work on a certain chipping drill and went off to work with other students. When he returned hours later Day was still working on the same drill.
It was the type of single-minded focus that left unchecked could wreak havoc, but under proper supervision could be harnessed and honed to produce frighteningly impressive results even from a player who Swatton concedes wasn’t even the best golfer at his academy.
To a point, Day’s climb followed a predictable script, with numerous amateur titles followed by just a single year on the Web.com Tour before he quickly ascended to the Big Leagues.
But things weren’t as easy for Day on the PGA Tour.
He played two full seasons before his first Tour victory and found himself bouncing on and off the disabled list with alarming regularity.
Day was sidelined with a thumb ailment (2014), back issue (2014), ankle injury (2013), wrist problem (2007) and, most concerning of all, a debilitating bout with vertigo that flared up at the U.S. Open.
It became standard fare to start each interview with Day by asking about his health, so much so the normally affable player waved off your scribe last year on the practice range at the Tour Championship.
“Don’t even ask,” he glared before offering a smile, “I’m feeling fine.”
But if he’d become weary of dealing with doctors, it was the increasingly loud drumbeat of his play in major championships that had truly begun to wear on him.
“I guess you can take me off the best players without a major [list] now,” he said on Sunday after winning the PGA Championship.
It was only fitting that Day completed his Grand Slam quest at Whistling Straits, which was the site of his first near miss at a major when he tied for 10th at the 2010 PGA.
There were runner-up showings at the 2011 Masters (which may have hurt the worst considering the inexplicable Australian drought at Augusta National) and U.S. Open.
He finished third at the 2013 Masters, which was won by Adam Scott, and was again runner-up at the U.S. Open later that season.
But the ultimate blow may have been at last month’s Open Championship where he began the final round with a share of the lead, but Day missed a 25 footer for birdie at the 18th hole that would have earned him a spot in the playoff won by Zach Johnson.
“He was disappointed that he didn’t get it done [at St. Andrews], but it was a matter of looking at what he did really, really well at that golf tournament,” Swatton said.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then it’s easy to see how Day used yet another disappointment to fuel what turned out to be a historic week at Whistling Straits.
After making birdie on his final three holes to win by one shot at the RBC Canadian Open, Day led by two strokes starting the final round at the PGA where, paired with the best player in the world (Jordan Spieth), he picked apart the course and the leaderboard like a guy who already had a six-pack of Grand Slam titles on the shelf.
He birdied four of his first seven holes to pull away from the field and put the finishing touches on what turned out to be a three-stroke victory with a towering 4-iron into the par-5 16th hole for what was essentially a walk-off birdie.
“A lot of tears. This one means a lot. We’ve come so close so many times,” Swatton said. “He always wanted to get better and his goal was to be the No. 1 golfer in the world.”
While he's not No. 1 yet, his dream of winning a major has come true, and it all materialized alongside a dusty hill in Kooralbyn not long after Dening Day took a gamble, and a second job, on a young man who could have gone either way.