UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – As Jason Day crouched behind his ball on the 18th green, lining up his final putt of the day, there was a bobble. A slight moment of unsteadiness, a flash of uncertainty, as if all of this effort could still suddenly go for naught.
He reflexively reached out his hand for balance, collected himself and took a deep breath.
After standing and checking his line once more, he rolled in the 6-foot putt and brought to a close one of the biggest tightrope walks in U.S. Open history.
Entering the third round at Chambers Bay, the question was not where Day stood on the leaderboard, but whether he would be able to suit up. Less than 24 hours earlier, the Aussie lay beside the ninth green with his tournament fate hanging in the balance, as a slip from a dizzy spell led to a lengthy delay and ultimately a diagnosis of benign positional vertigo.
There is no good time to battle such a plight, but a major championship has to be among the worst options – especially on a course as physically demanding as Chambers Bay.
But after a night of rest and treatment from his medical team, there stood Day on the first tee, ready to tackle the most grueling test in golf on a layout that would make him feel as if he were going up and down Seattle's Space Needle before the day was done.
Eighteen holes later, capped by that final birdie that spurred the biggest cheer of the day from the grandstand lining the home hole, Day had conquered Mount Chambers and improbably earned a spot in Sunday’s final pairing.
“I said to him on [No.] 18, I said that was one of the greatest rounds of golf I’ve ever watched,” said caddie Col Swatton. “That was a super-human effort.”
While the end result netted a share of the lead alongside three others, the actual product was rife with nervous energy and bated breath. Day appeared unsteady on his feet from the opening hole, at times either leaning on Swatton for physical support or dropping to one knee to gather himself.
Swatton said there were times he thought he might have to stop his player, but the toughest hole was No. 4 – a 504-yard par 4 that rises 45 feet from tee to green. It was at that point that Day put his arm around Swatton and relied on his caddie, swing coach and mentor to guide his ascent.
“I just said, ‘You’ve got the heart of a lion. You’re going to show the world today that you’re going to be the greatest you can be,’” Swatton said. “And I said, ‘Look, let’s do it.’ And he just put his head down and kept walking one foot in front of the other. It was pretty impressive.”
Day bogeyed No. 4, his second blemish of the day. The following hole, playing partner Kevin Kisner offered to start getting the ball out of the hole for Day to save him from bending down to retrieve it. Day refused that offer, along with a similar one from Swatton, but then a funny thing happened – he appeared to grow steadier as the afternoon progressed and dropped only one more shot the rest of the round.
“I didn’t feel that great coming out early,” Day said in a post-round statement. “I felt pretty groggy just from the drugs that I had in my system, then kind of flushed that out on the back nine.”
Added Kisner: “He didn’t say much after a while, he was just feeling terrible. I think whatever medicine he’s taking just makes him feel worse, and he played unbelievable there coming in to make those three birdies. He impressed me.”
Those birdies came on Nos. 15, 17 and 18, rocketing Day to the top of the standings, but even during times of prosperity it was clear that the 27-year-old wasn’t quite right. He backed off his final tee shot, closed his eyes at points in between shots and continued to lean on Swatton to get him to the finish line.
“The vertigo came back a little bit on the 13th tee box, and then [I] felt nauseous all day,” Day said. “I started shaking on [No.] 16 tee box and then I just tried to get it in, really. Just wanted to get it in.”
“The hardest part for him is just turning the head,” explained Swatton. “Every time he turns to look at the target, it takes a second for his eyes to steady up a little bit.”
The theater of Day’s finish recalled memories of Ken Venturi’s battle with heat stroke at Congressional in 1964, or more recently Tiger Woods’ one-legged triumph at Torrey Pines in 2008.
“I said to him, ‘They might make a movie about that round,’” Swatton said. “That was the greatest round I’ve ever watched. I’ve watched a lot of golf, and watching that was pretty special.”
After enduring one of the most harrowing moments in major championship history, Day now stands on the cusp of his breakthrough triumph, fittingly at an event where he has come so close in recent years. He has passed a monumental test, but one of even greater stature now awaits: one last climb across the cliffs and dunes of Chambers Bay, one more chance to erase the heartbreak of past near-misses.
Day answered the bell during the third round, and should he again rise to the occasion he could author one of the more improbable chapters in this tournament’s illustrious history.