DUBLIN, Ohio – World No. 1 Jason Day took the last two weeks off to recharge after a stressful – but very satisfying – wire-to-wire win at The Players.
And while Day was away, the two guys in his rearview mirror in the world rankings – Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – took back the headlines to set up a blockbuster showdown this week at the Memorial Tournament. All three players won in their last worldwide start.
Day took notice.
“I extended my lead for a while, and now Jordan and Rory are both closing in on it,” Day said Tuesday at the Memorial.
It can be lonely at the top – just ask Tiger Woods – but Day has found plenty of company with his two contemporaries. They have been passing around the No. 1 ranking for most of the past year, and they have combined to win five of the last nine majors.
McIlroy ruled the top spot for 54 weeks, mostly thanks to his two majors and a WGC win in 2014.
Spieth took over for McIlroy last August and ruled most of 2015 by nearly winning the Grand Slam, but Day was not far behind as he matched Spieth with five wins but one less major. Spieth ended the year at No. 1, but so far in 2016 Day has tightened his grip on the throne with three wins.
Coming off a disastrous finish at Augusta and a missed cut at The Players, a grumpy Spieth admitted two weeks ago he was bothered that Day was extending his lead.
“It should bother guys who are competitive and want to stay on top as well,” Day said. “There's nothing wrong with being bothered by that.”
Spieth responded Sunday with a back-nine 30 to win his first professional event in his home state of Texas.
McIlroy had his “hey, don’t forget about me” moment two weeks ago at the Irish Open when he hit two brawny fairway woods down the stretch to win his “fifth major.”
Again, Day took notice.
“Some of the best 3-woods and 5-woods I've seen in a long while,” he said.
Now Day has a chance to respond, and he would love nothing more than to do it at his home course. But first Day will have to improve on his self-described “horrific” record at Muirfield Village. Day is a member – his wife, Elle, is from Ohio – but he has yet to crack the top 10 in eight starts at the Memorial.
The good news for Day is that he drew inspiration from his bad record at TPC Sawgrass and won The Players. He hopes a new approach will turn his fortunes around this week.
“I typically play this course when I'm playing in a social rounds; I play it very aggressive,” he said. “I'm hitting drivers off most tees or taking lines that you wouldn't take, and then I – for some reason, I've kind of turned that into the actual tournament, and I'm taking similar lines, and you just can't do that.”
In addition to world No. 2 Spieth and No. 3 McIlory, Day will have to contend with No. 4 Bubba Watson, No. 5 Rickie Fowler, and No. 8 Dustin Johnson, plus other big names like Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Hideki Matsuyama.
It is only the fifth time this year the latest version of the “Big 3” has been in the same field. Day has won two of those events (Match Play, Players), and he knows it will take a lot of work to stay at the top and hold off Spieth and McIlroy.
“It's a lot of pressure to be in this situation we're in, but we wouldn't want it any other way,” he said.