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Even battling injury, Day a few steps ahead at WGC

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AUSTIN, Texas – Sprawled out on the massage table or laid up in the hotel room, Jason Day heard four members of his inner circle trying to persuade him to withdraw from the WGC-Dell Match Play.

Don’t be a hero.

Don’t risk further injury.  

Don’t ruin your chances at Augusta.  

“I’m glad I didn’t listen,” Day said with a smile, the baby blue World Golf Championships trophy to his right.

It was another eventful week in a career full of them: No practice round at the new tournament venue on Tuesday, a back injury on Wednesday, a return to No. 1 on Saturday and now this on Sunday – Day's second Match Play title in the past three years, after he stormed past Louis Oosthuizen, 5 and 4, in the scheduled 18-hole final.

Day made such quick work of his opponent that they finished before the consolation match ended. It was the most lopsided championship match since 2008, and it was his sixth worldwide title in his last 13 starts, the most of any player over that span.

“It was a very, very strange week,” Day said. “But I’m glad to gut it out and get the win.”

Oosthuizen actually won the first hole Sunday afternoon, after driving the 393-yard opener, but he got steamrolled from there. The match turned quickly after some shoddy wedge play by Oosthuizen on the front nine and a few sky-high irons by Day that dropped next to the flag. Suddenly, Oosthuizen was 3 down, and reeling, and running out of holes against a relentless opponent. Even when he had an opening, even when Day flared his second shot into the par-5 12th way right, Oosthuizen couldn’t capitalize. Trying to force the issue, he overcooked his fairway wood into the lake, halving the hole and effectively ending his chances. Day closed him out, mercifully, with a wedge to 4 feet on 14.

“You put yourself in a situation where if you play a guy like that, he’s going to take the toughest shot on, and nine out of 10 times he’ll probably pull it off in the form that he’s in,” Oosthuizen said. “You know you need to make birdies. You need to make putts. You’re under pressure the whole time because your opponent is playing that good of golf.”

WGC-Dell Match Play: Full coverage | Bracket

The worry, of course, was that Day would expend so much energy during his morning semifinal match against Rory McIlroy – a rare tussle between the second and third overall seeds – that he’d come out flat in the second 18. And make no mistake, that battle with McIlroy was draining – seven times in eight tries Day got up and down from around the green, including on the last, when he sank a nail-biting 13-footer to avoid a playoff.

But Day has an innate ability to dig deep, to keep pushing, to drain every last ounce of his ability. He had suggested (incorrectly) that he doesn’t have the ball-striking skills of McIlroy, or the dependable crunch-time stroke of Jordan Spieth, but he does enjoy one advantage against his star-studded peers.

“I just don’t quit,” he said. “And I’ll keep fighting until it’s over, until I either have lost or have won.”

But it’s never that straightforward, is it?

Whether it’s vertigo at the U.S. Open or the flu at Torrey Pines or his wife getting bowled over at a NBA game, drama has long surrounded Day, and this week was no exception.

He didn’t even play a practice round this week, a bold move with the event moving to Austin Country Club. While walking the course for the first time on Tuesday afternoon, something flew into his eye and he bailed after seven holes. Then, the next day, out of nowhere, his back seized up on the 15th hole in his match against Graeme McDowell. Within 15 minutes, Day was dropping his club after impact, clutching his lower back, hobbling up the fairway and sliding sideways into a bunker. He was in such rough shape that he was fortunate, perhaps, that the match ended there, with “searing pain” running down both legs.

Breathless debate ensued about whether he should continue. Day's medical team – trainer Cornell Driessen, doctor James Bradley and fill-in therapist Brian Smith – discussed their options. But after a long night of treatment, he tested his sore back on the range the following afternoon, ripping long irons to simulate how he’d swing on the course.

“I wanted to win,” he said. “I just want to win. I wanted to win so bad that I felt with how I was playing, I would be holding the trophy at the end of the week. That’s what kept me going.”

After declaring himself fit to continue, Day smoked Thongchai Jaidee in the second round. The next day, he received the break of the tournament, beating Paul Casey after the Englishman conceded after only six holes with a stomach virus.

To suggest that Day simply got lucky with his draw and logged the fewest holes of anyone (101) overlooks his remarkable play. It’s an imperfect stat, sure, but including concessions, he was 28 under par this week. No doubt, the best player won.  

“I would have been very, very disappointed and frustrated with myself if I didn’t get the win,” he said, “because I’ve come so far.”

This week, yes, and also this year.

Prior to Day’s gritty victory last week at Bay Hill, most of the questions he faced were about his slow start. But was it that unexpected? After all, he was coming off a career year, and he’d just won his first major, and he’d ticked off a lifelong goal by ascending to No. 1, and he had put away his clubs, completely, for nearly three months following the birth of his second child.

“It takes time to get back in the groove,” said his caddie and coach, Colin Swatton, and now Day has rediscovered that torrid form, bashing tee shots, hitting moonshot irons and rolling in seemingly every critical putt he faces.

“He’s definitely at the moment a few steps ahead of everyone,” Oosthuizen said.

And the way he’s playing, he’s only gaining more separation.