PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Much like the weather-delayed second round of The Players, this isn’t over.
When Jason Day punched out late Friday he still had four holes to complete in his round, and he will join 32 of his PGA Tour frat brothers bright and far-too-early Saturday morning looking to get things back on schedule.
But there is a presence looming over TPC Sawgrass and not just that storm cell that sent players scrambling to the clubhouse for more than two hours on Friday afternoon.
Day is moving to another level and those inside and outside the ropes can feel it. The man who led wire-to-wire in his last start in Florida, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, followed his opening 63 with a 14-birdie card through 32 holes for a three-stroke lead at 14 under, which was also the number Day predicted would win this week.
The dude who has won six times in the last 12 months appears back on cruise control after a brief hiatus from the winner’s circle on a course that – like Bay Hill – he hadn’t enjoyed a lot of success on.
In his previous five trips to the circuit’s flagship event, Day had never carded back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He still hasn’t, but unless he endures a dramatic lapse early Saturday the field will set out for the weekend playing an imposing game of catch up.
His Players history aside this doesn’t look anything like the guy who finished with an 81 in Round 2 last year at TPC Sawgrass, and there’s a reason why the Australian is the world’s top-ranked golfer. Pros at that level have a tendency to convert these types of opportunities.
Since 2010, the world No. 1 has held the outright lead in a Tour event four times and that player went on to win each time.
“I will have some opportunities on 15 and 16, as well,” Day said as dusk descended on TPC Soft & Soggy. “[No.] 16 will be downwind. Hopefully I can hit some solid shots and try to get a few more birdies.”
After four days of target practice – made possible by exceedingly long drives and soft, receptive greens that won’t get much firmer thanks to Friday’s afternoon deluge – this marathon will quickly devolve into a sprint.
That doesn’t exactly give the field much hope to chase down a player who doesn’t have a single bogey on his card for the week.
The silver lining in Friday’s metaphorical cloud could be found just 11 spots down the leaderboard thanks to Rory McIlroy’s eight-stroke improvement on Day 2.
The Northern Irishman moved into a tie for eighth place, just six strokes off Day’s pace, thanks to a 64, and set the stage for one of those showdowns that make for good talking points but rarely occur in golf.
Earlier this year your scribe was attempting an informal poll of players and various observers, asking who would have the upper hand if McIlroy and then-world No. 1 Jordan Spieth went toe-to-toe with their best stuff. It should have been no surprise how many hijacked the conversation, suggesting Day was the best of the lot.
Day seemed to suggest as much late last year.
“If we had to put it in words these days it's like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy had a baby and I was it,” Day said at the 2015 Tour Championship.
He enjoys the length of McIlroy – Day ranks 24th on Tour this season with a 299-yard driving average, Rory ranks 10th at 305 yards – and the putting prowess of Spieth – Day is second on Tour in strokes gained-putting compared to Jordan at 20th.
At their best, both players can separate themselves from the pack with surprising ease. Imagine the theater if they were given a chance to test their best in a much-anticipated mano-a-mano match.
But first, McIlroy will have to close the gap and that will likely require a little help from the front-runner, who hasn’t exactly been in a giving mood of late. Day's point-and-shoot mentality on a soft Stadium Course certainly won’t help.
“I have a big lead, but I have to keep pushing forward with as much golf as we have left,” Day said.
He’s right, of course, but for those playing catch up the weekend is starting to feel considerably more abbreviated.