Day in position to end eventful season on high note

By Rex HoggardAugust 30, 2014, 11:44 pm

NORTON, Mass. – In bullet-point fashion, Jason Day’s season has been a year of dramatic contrasts.

In order, he has won a World Golf Championship and endured three cortisone shots, a grip change, a bout with vertigo and the slings and arrows of the kind of internal dialogue that is always accompanied by a healthy dollop of doubt.

What began as a breakout season for the would-be world beater, punctuated by his victory at the Match Play Championship in February, cascaded into a collection of visits to the doctor’s office and more than 2 ½ months on the DL.

Pain and rehabilitation Day can deal with. He’s had plenty of practice in a career dotted with injuries ranging from his ankle to his wrist and now his thumb. What compounded the problem was all the free time that he suddenly had to endure.

Along the lines of idle hands and whatnot, Day spent a good amount of time lamenting his plight and wrestling with the predictable demons.

“The stress was tough. Just not knowing if you’re going to play again. Your mind wanders and you think, ‘Is this the end for me?’” Day said.

Deep stuff for a 26-year-old, but he has come by his anxiety honestly.

For weeks at a time, Day’s ailing left thumb refused to heal and with each passing checkup, the progress and long-term prognosis continued to stall until he decided to stop waiting and worrying.

Deutsche Bank Championship: Articles, videos and photos

Day hired a new conditioning coach who created a program to protect his fragile thumb. His swing coach, Col Swatton, had him weaken his grip to alleviate the pressure of repeated swings. Day’s “ball count” jumped from about 50 range balls a week before the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to nearly 500, and he opened with rounds of 69-65 at the PGA Championship on his way to a tie for 15th place. Two weeks later at The Barclays he held a share of the lead through 54 holes before finishing two shots behind eventual champion Hunter Mahan.

On a perfect fall Saturday at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Day stormed out early with a front-nine 31 and will take another lead into a playoff Sunday. Although he’s only midway through this event – which finishes on Monday – and it is Ryan Palmer who is tied with him atop the leaderboard, the reasons to be optimistic go well beyond his second-round scorecard.

That he’s playing PGA Tour golf, albeit not entirely pain-free, is reason to exhale. That he’s vying for his second title in as many weeks is something that he thought might never happen again.

“It’s a huge relief,” said Day, who led by as many as two strokes before making a mess of the par-5 18th hole on his way to a second-round 68.

It’s the kind of golf many expected from Day when he collected his second Tour title earlier this year at the WGC-Match Play and the kind of run that made him a can’t-miss prospect when he turned professional in 2006.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson could be forgiven if he gave the Presidents Cup staple - an Ohio resident by way of Queensland, Australia - the nod on Tuesday with one of his wild-card picks. Day has everything a captain with too many options would want, except for the wrong passport to join the U.S. side in Scotland.

But as impressive as Day’s play has been the last month, it is his growing confidence that may vault him atop the FedEx Cup standings on Monday. After a season of doubt and doctors, the swagger, and a healthy bit of perspective, has returned.

“Sunday last week was the best I’ve ever seen on a Sunday,” Swatton said. “You could see he was confident.”

Always considered a singular talent, if there was a knock against Day before this season it was his play on Sundays when tournaments, often of the major championship variety, were on the line.

In a twisted way, Day’s bout with a bad thumb has seemed to put that second-guessing into perspective. After facing the possibility of life after golf, those 5-footers for birdie on the back nine with hardware hanging in the balance no longer seem to weigh as heavily on him.

Consider that on Sunday last week at The Barclays, Day played his last six holes in 2 under par and closed with a 68, which would normally give the 54-hole leader a better than average chance had it not been for Mahan’s heroics.

After contemplating the end for weeks at a time, it seems Day still has a few bullet items to add to what has already been an eventful season.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

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Rory looking for that carefree inner-child

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Eleven years later, Rory McIlroy cringes at the photo: the yellow sweater with the deep V-neck, the chubby cheeks and the messy mop that curled under his cap.

“You live and you learn,” he said Wednesday, offering a wry smile.

The last time McIlroy played at a Carnoustie Open, in 2007, he earned the Silver Medal as the low amateur. He tied for 42nd, but the final result had mattered little. Grateful just to have a spot in the field, courtesy of his European Amateur title, he bounced along the fairways, soaking up every moment, and lingered behind the 18th green as one of his local heroes, Padraig Harrington, battled one of his favorite players, Sergio Garcia. Waiting for the trophy presentation, he passed the time playing with Padraig’s young son, Paddy. On Wednesday, McIlroy spotted Paddy, now 15, walking around Carnoustie with his three-time-major-winning father.

“He’s massive now – he towers over me,” he said. “It’s so funny thinking back on that day.”

But it’s also instructive. If there’s a lesson to be learned from ’07, it’s how carefree McIlroy approached and played that week. He was reminded again of that untroubled attitude while playing a practice round here with 23-year-old Jon Rahm, who stepped onto each tee, unsheathed his driver and bombed away with little regard for the wind or the bounce or the fescue. McIlroy smiled, because he remembers a time, not too long ago, that he’d attack a course with similar reckless abandon.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I just think, as you get older, you get a little more cautious in life,” said McIlroy, 29. “I think it’s only natural. There’s something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”

And so on the eve of this Open, as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his last major title, McIlroy finds himself searching for a way to channel that happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who was about to take the world by storm, to tap into the easygoing excellence that once defined his dominance.

It’s been a year since he first hinted at what he’s been missing. Last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was the final event of his long run with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The chief reason for the split, he said, had nothing to do with some of the questionable on-course decisions, but rather a desire to take ownership of him game, to be freed up alongside one of his best friends, Harry Diamond.

That partnership has produced only one victory so far, and over the past few months, McIlroy has at times looked unsettled between the ropes. It’s difficult to compute, how someone with seemingly so much – a résumé with four majors, a robust bank account, a beautiful wife – can also appear disinterested and unmotivated.

“I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “A golf tournament is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself. Sometimes the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a level every week, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. The more I can be like that kid, the better.”

It’s a decidedly different landscape from when the erstwhile Boy Wonder last won a major, in summer 2014. Jordan Spieth had won just a single Tour event, not three majors. Dustin Johnson wasn’t world No. 1 but merely a tantalizing tease, a long-hitting, fast-living physical freak who was just beginning a six-month break to address "personal challenges." Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka hadn’t even started playing in the States.  

McIlroy’s greatest asset, both then and now, was his driving – he put on clinics at Congressional and Kiawah, Hoylake and Valhalla. He was a mainstay at or near the top of the strokes gained: tee to green rankings, but over the past few years, because of better technology, fitness and coaching, the gap between him and the rest of the field has shrunk.

“I think at this stage players have caught up,” Harrington said. “There’s many players who drive the ball comparable and have certainly eaten into that advantage. Rory is well on pace to get into double digits with majors, but it has got harder. There’s no doubt there’s more players out there who are capable of having a big week and a big game for a major. It makes it tough.”

It’s not as though McIlroy hasn’t had opportunities to add to his major haul; they’ve just been less frequent and against stronger competition. In the 13 majors since he last won, he’s either finished in the top 10 or missed the cut in 11 of them. This year, he played in the final group at the Masters, and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam, before a soul-crushing 74 on the last day. His U.S. Open bid was over after nine holes, after an opening 80 and a missed cut during which he declined to speak to reporters after both frustrating rounds.

“I’m trying,” he said Wednesday. “I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”

A year after saying that majors are the only events that will define the rest of his career, he recently shrugged off the doom and gloom surrounding his Grand Slam drought: “It doesn’t keep me up at night, thinking, If I never won another major, I can’t live with myself.”

Eleven years ago, McIlroy never would have troubled himself with such trivial questions about his legacy. But perhaps a return to Carnoustie, to where his major career started, is just what he needs to unlock his greatness once again.