LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Two years ago, Jason Day showed up to the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club at the height of his powers.
The Aussie was fresh off his breakthrough major victory at the PGA Championship, and he had already bagged a playoff event. By the time the week was over, Day had waxed another elite field and left Chicago with the world No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career.
Times, they are a changin’.
With the top ranking long gone, Day turned heads and raised eyebrows Wednesday when he announced that he had parted with caddie Col Swatton, becoming just the latest top-tier pro to look for a spark with a fresh – and familiar – face on the bag.
As far as player-caddie relationships go, the bond between Day and Swatton seemed borderline inseparable. Swatton’s role was multi-dimensional; he was part caddie, part coach and part father figure after taking Day under his wing as a youth. One need only reflect on the embrace the two men shared on the final green at Whistling Straits to know how close they have grown.
Indeed, the Aussie confirmed that Swatton will continue to serve as his swing coach despite the split. But when it came to life inside the ropes, he felt the need for change.
“The chemistry between me and Col just slowly (changed) over time,” Day said Wednesday. “It’s more my fault really because he’s out there trying to do the best job he can and, unfortunately, sometimes it just doesn’t work out no matter how hard he works.”
Day explained that he made the decision to change course during the bye last week. In any other year it might go down as the biggest player-caddie news of the season, but 2017 has become a year marked by looper transition.
After all, it was only three months ago that Phil Mickelson took on his brother, Tim, as a caddie after he and Jim “Bones” Mackay mutually agreed to end their 25-year partnership, while last month Rory McIlroy swapped out longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald for friend Harry Diamond, who remains on the bag after initially being afforded a two-event trial run.
While McIlroy eschewed the notion that he had “sacked” Fitzgerald, Day was candid about the one-way nature of his decision. According to Day, Swatton was “a little bit shocked and disappointed” upon hearing the news, an understandable reaction given the depth of their partnership.
But the caddie has always been an easily-accessed avenue for change, and Day was certainly in need of a course correction. Only eight months ago, he started the year ranked No. 1 and spoke at the SBS Tournament of Champions of his desire to remain there for the foreseeable future.
“It’s great to see that you finished No. 1 at the end of the year. But I’d like to go a full year, not just go half a year, and get finish at No. 1,” Day said at Kapalua. “Obviously the goals are to win majors and win as much as I can, but win majors and try and stay No. 1 for the whole year.”
Both parts of that equation have eluded the 29-year-old. He has not won anywhere in the world since the 2016 Players Championship, and he returns to Conway Farms ranked No. 9 in the world – his lowest ranking since June 2015.
Day appeared to have a shot to turn his season around at last month’s PGA Championship, but a catastrophic blunder on the final hole of the third round abruptly ended his title hopes.
It was an instance where he tried to play the hero shot, opting against a chip-out and going instead for what he described as a “rope hook” off pine straw with a tree obstructing his follow-through. The shot bounded off a branch, bounced backwards and led to a quadruple bogey.
It was a questionable decision in the heat of the moment, one that seemed even more surprising given the stakes. While Day denied that it had any connection to his decision to split with Swatton, the sequence will now go down in hindsight alongside the mis-club that cost McIlroy during the third round of The Open in his final event with Fitzgerald.
“People are going to blow it out more than it really is,” Day said. “He’s still my coach and there’s nothing between the PGA or anything that comes to mind that anyone thinks.”
While the root cause remains nebulous, the decision left no doubt that Day is ready to turn the page in search of a return to form. He has tapped his former roommate, Luke Reardon, for this week and next should he advance to the Tour Championship. But his long-range caddie plans remain up in the air.
“I’m going to kind of just see how the rest of the year goes with whoever is on the bag, see if I can actually get something going,” Day said. “If that doesn’t work out, if I don’t like the way I work with these guys, then maybe a bag shift for next year.”
Stripped to its core, golf remains a uniquely individual sport. There are no teammates upon which to rely, no opponent whose performance can alter a given outcome. It is a battle waged with the hands and between the ears, largely without outside influence.
Those stakes make the role of the caddie all the more important, serving as the lone outside perspective and sounding board for a player’s decision-making and mental approach. Never has that importance been more evident than this year, as one top player after the next has pinpointed it as a possible agent of change.
Now Day has added his name to the list, another world No. 1 with hopes of finding a spark with a familiar face by his side. The decision wasn’t entirely a shock in the wake of similar moves from Mickelson and McIlroy, but it showed once again that no bond between player and caddie is indispensable – even those whose depths reach far beyond the golf course.