Five – that’s how many times Jason Day referred to the No. 1 ranking during his winner’s news conference in February at the Farmers Insurance Open.
At the time, it was easy to laugh off one of his career goals. Day had just won on the PGA Tour for only the third time in eight years. He was less than a year removed from injuries to his thumb and back. And he was a distant No. 4 in the rankings, behind alpha dog Rory McIlroy as well as Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson.
“I’m very motivated to get to No. 1,” Day said that night, after a hard-fought victory at Torrey Pines, “but I just want to give it 100 percent every day.”
Day’s prospects have always come with a qualifier – if he’s healthy.
The 28-year-old Australian has the physical tools and drive to be one of the best players in the world, but it was just a matter of whether he could stay upright for a full Tour season.
Save for his scary collapse at Chambers Bay, that’s exactly what Day did in 2015, and it translated to by far his best year as a pro – five wins, six other top 10s, his first major and, yes, a brief stay at world No. 1.
Tired of underachieving, tired of injuries torpedoing a promising season, tired of lagging behind the other under-30 stars, Day was more motivated this year than ever before. “I wanted to kick butt,” he said, but no one, not even Day, could have imagined the epic run that he’d enjoy this summer.
And to think, it all began with another major disappointment.
Just weeks after sharing the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open, Day found himself squarely in the hunt once again at St. Andrews. He surged into the lead on the front nine, but then made 12 consecutive pars to close, none more excruciating than the 20-footer that he left short on the last. Day and Jordan Spieth, both one shot out of the playoff, consoled each other on the 18th green.
Six days later, in Canada, Day faced a similar-length putt to win on the final hole, only this time he steadied himself with one thought: Make sure you get this one to the hole. When the birdie putt dropped, Day unleashed a torrent of fist pumps and raised his putter in triumph. Afterward, he spoke of a newfound serenity on the course, and it showed when he went on a tear for the next two months.
At the PGA, he shot a record-setting 72-hole score and outplayed world No. 1 Spieth down the stretch to win his first major.
At the Barclays, he lapped the field with a 63-62 weekend.
At the BMW, he nearly opened with 59, stormed out to a huge lead and relished the victory lap that lifted him to No. 1 for the first time.
It’s a testament to Day’s remarkable year that Spieth became the youngest player since 1922 to win back-to-back majors and still wasn’t a lock for Player of the Year honors entering the season finale.
“I felt like it was my time,” Day said.
The Aussie may have shifted his narrative from career underachiever to major champion, but his gutsy performance at Chambers Bay was a reminder that Day still has more red flags than the rest of the world’s elite players.
Cruising along through 35 holes, Day collapsed while approaching the green on his final hole of the day Friday at the U.S. Open. It was a frightening scene – a 36-hole contender, on his back, hands covering his face – and his health became a focal point over the weekend. Grimacing and leaning on his club for support, his third-round 68 propelled him into a share of the lead. He eventually tied for ninth.
Later, Day’s fall was linked to a viral ear infection and he was treated with medication. He didn’t show any ill effects for the rest of the year, but his history of vertigo, litany of injuries and violent swing makes him more susceptible to the DL.
A shame, too, because when Day is right, he proved this year that his top gear is just as breathtaking as McIlroy’s or Spieth’s, with booming drives, towering irons and a soft touch around the greens. One of the breakout stars of 2015, Day helped launch a new Big 3 in golf, a trio of dynamic, eminently likable stars that approach and play the game differently.
And so now, after briefly reaching the summit, Day trails only Spieth in the world rankings, and by a slim margin. Fortunately for us, this battle should continue for the foreseeable future – well, as long as Day remains healthy.