PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There were some who didn’t think Jason Day had what it took to be a contender at TPC Sawgrass.
His greens in regulation, they argued, aren't up to the demanding test that is the PGA Tour’s flagship event, and his record at The Players supported that school of thought.
In five starts he’s missed three cuts, posted just a single top-10 and closed his week last year with a Friday 81. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last to concede Pete Dye’s swamp sensation isn’t his favorite ballpark.
Even on Tuesday when he spoke to the assembled media masses, the world No. 1 admitted that the Stadium Course is an examination of his least favorite clubs – his 3-wood and 2-iron.
Early Friday, however, the relationship started to change. He birdied his first hole (No. 10), his second and his third, and added another before the turn at the island-green 17th hole.
“I was under par going through my first nine, but there were guys at 7 under when I was at 5 under, and I'm sitting there going, OK, I've got to keep pushing,” Day said. “When you see someone up the leaderboard that's kind of distancing themselves away from the field, you've got to do something to catch up to them.”
Day’s closing loop was even better with birdies at Nos. 1, 2, 4, 7 and 9 for a course-record-tying 63 and the early lead. That’s 18 strokes better than his second-round 81 last year and light years away from the conventional wisdom that dubbed Day a dubious Players pick.
But the questionable ball-striking that some said made Day a long shot at TPC Sawgrass proved to be a non-story on Thursday with the Australian hitting 15 of 18 greens in regulation and ranked fourth in strokes gained-tee to green.
“I just said to him, ‘That’s one of the best rounds I’ve ever seen.’ You’d like to have a birdie putt on every hole, but he didn’t leave much out there,” said Colin Swatton, Day’s swing coach/caddie. “He played really, really well on a course that at the start of the week a lot of people said didn’t really suit him.”
Thursday will be remembered as one of the more user-friendly days on the Stadium Course. The softer side of Sawgrass yielded an early Round 1 scoring average of 70.185, compared to a 72.38 average on Day 1 last year.
But that ignores Day’s dramatic change of fortune on the Stadium Course, and dismisses his ability to mentally move beyond the baggage he’s accumulated from the course in recent years.
“There was a lot of frustration last year,” Day said. “The funny thing was I think I shot 69 in the first round [in 2015], so I shot 69-81-63.”
It’s not as though the critics of Day’s resume at Sawgrass were wildly off base. For most players, the course is an acquired taste, particularly for a bomber like Day who would prefer to hit driver first and ask questions later.
It also didn’t help that Day’s 3-wood and 2-iron, the required options on arguably the Tour’s most demanding position golf course, aren’t exactly his favorite clubs.
But on Thursday – thanks to a full week back home in Columbus, Ohio, focused on perfecting his 3-wood and 2-iron play – his tee-to-green game was plenty good enough. Despite hitting just 8 of 14 fairways, when he did miss the short grass he did so in the right spots.
“He didn’t play the course any differently, he was just more respectful of how he needed to play it,” Swatton said.
The prime example of this came on the ninth hole, his last. As Swatton explained, they played the hole backwards with Day teeing off on the par 5 with his 2-iron and then launching a 3-wood into a greenside bunker, from where he got up and down for birdie.
For the day, he hit just six drivers, relying instead on those “uncomfortable” 3-woods and 2-irons, and he explained that a little fatigue on Day 1 likely forced him to focus more.
“I feel like I'm a lot more prepared this year than I was last year, especially with how I was playing last year,” said Day, who heard a similar refrain that he couldn’t win in Florida before winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. “I was playing pretty decent golf coming into this event, and I'm playing a lot better golf than I was last year.”
There was a time not that long ago when many of the same critics said Tiger Woods didn’t have the game for TPC Sawgrass, that the layout demanded a style of play he was either unable or unwilling to commit to.
That speculation ended when Woods won the 2013 Players by two strokes for his second victory at TPC Sawgrass.
Day still has three more rounds on what promises to be an increasingly difficult course, but considering his confidence and commitment to playing the right type of golf for the Stadium Course it’s starting to feel like he’s bound for his own statement week.