KAPALUA, Hawaii – In the fall of 2006, those who make the important decisions at TaylorMade Golf had a heady choice – sign little-known prospect Jason Day to an endorsement deal or Anthony Kim?
The company opted for the Australian blue-chipper, perhaps because of Kim’s rough-and-tumble past at the University of Oklahoma. Or maybe it was Day’s potential global appeal.
Whatever the reason, the decision paid off. Although Kim won three times in his first three years on the PGA Tour he hasn’t played since 2012 and has become something of an urban legend, with the occasional sighting only fueling the curious reasons behind his disappearance.
Day on the other hand begins 2017 No. 1 in the world following a three-win season in ’16, he’s won a major (2015 PGA Championship) and is a model citizen with an impressive lineup of endorsement opportunities, including a new clothing deal with Nike that reportedly is worth $10 million a year.
Yet beneath all that momentum and upside was a very real sense of uncertainty on Tuesday when he spoke at the SBS Tournament of Champions.
The 29-year-old hasn’t played on Tour since the Thursday of the Tour Championship in September, sidelined by a back injury that caused him to withdraw from the season finale.
“It’s been a while,” he smiled on Tuesday at Kapalua.
If there is cause for concern when it comes to Day – and, to be honest, any time someone misses starts because of a balky back there is reason to worry – it wasn’t coming from the 10-time Tour winner.
That’s not his style.
Although he conceded that the last three frigid months cooped up in Columbus, Ohio, was varying shades of “miserable,” he begins 2017 feeling fit and “cautiously optimistic.”
He’s been here before. At the 2015 U.S. Open he suffered from a dramatic case of benign positional vertigo, missed two months in ’14 with a left-thumb injury and withdrew from the Masters in ’13 with an ankle injury.
As impressive as Day has been on the course during his career, his inability to avoid the DL has been just as incomprehensible.
For Day, the cautionary tale of a world-class athlete derailed in his prime by a back injury is no further away than a text message. He grew up idolizing Tiger Woods, basing his unrivaled work ethic on a second-hand book written about the 14-time major champion, and has become a friend and confidant of the former world No. 1 in recent years.
Day has seen firsthand the ravages a back injury can have on even the most talented and conditioned player, but as temperatures dropped into single digits in Ohio the last few weeks he contended there were no foreboding moments.
This current injury, which he described as an annular ligament tear between his L4/L5 disc, can be controlled, Day said. He explained that through treatment and strengthening and a shorter back swing he can keep his ailing back from dictating the terms of his career like it has for Woods, who missed all of the 2016 season following multiple back procedures.
When asked if there was a moment over the past few weeks when he embraced the prospect of his professional mortality, Day said his current bout with his body wasn’t nearly as concerning as the thumb injury he endured in 2014.
“I actually thought I was going to have to quit the game because of the thumb, because I literally couldn't hold the club,” he said. “You can get away with a bad back a little bit every now and then; you can kind of get through it.”
His injured thumb, however, lingered for months, at one point requiring three cortisone injections in four weeks.
“I remember sitting there and they would pull the thumb, so the knuckle could expand and they could inject in between the knuckle,” Day recalled. “It hurt, I mean, like hell, it hurt so bad. I was just trying to get some sort of numbness so I could actually hold the club.”
By comparison, Day’s most recent medical setback only required time and patience, not to mention a healthy dose of perspective born from countless trips to the Tour fitness trailer.
“I feel like you're always trying to say, ‘I feel good and I'm past it,’ but with back injuries, I think you probably look at it, 90 percent of the players probably have some back injury or back symptom that could possibly pop up at any time,” he said.
A decade after TaylorMade bet on Day his upside remains indisputable. Long even by Tour standards with a superior putting touch (he was first in 2016 in strokes gained: putting), Day is still the player with the most consistent and well-rounded game even if all that talent comes with a growing list of concerning medical question marks.