AUGUSTA, Ga. – This will sound insane.
Jason Day knows that.
But stay with him here.
During his hourlong daily routine just to get his body ready for the round, Day needs to repeatedly blow into a balloon. It’s the only way to get his ribcage back into position.
Those with bad backs will do whatever it takes to get by, but it still creates a few awkward moments. Like last week, when he flew to Florida and laid down on the floor next to the two pilots, doing his exercises. Every time he exhaled, and some air escaped from the balloon, well, you know ...
“It sounds like you’ve let one go, right?” Day said. “Every 30 seconds, I would be letting the balloons out, and these guys are looking at me very strange. But they understood what’s going on.”
Day can laugh about it now, seated comfortably in the interview room of the Masters press building, after a second-round 67 that put him in a share of the clubhouse lead at 7-under 137. But just a day earlier, in a painful scene that had become all too familiar, the oft-injured Aussie lay sprawled out on the grass, getting worked on by his chiropractor. On the practice putting green, just minutes before his afternoon tee time, Day leaned down to kiss his 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, and threw out his back. Again. He thought about withdrawing. He received treatment on the second and fourth tees. But he soldiered on, laboring to walk up and down Augusta National’s hilly fairways.
“The first thing that went through my head was immediate frustration and disappointment,” he said, “just knowing that I’ve been trying to do the right things, and I feel like things were progressing nicely, and then all of a sudden it just went out.”
News of Day’s back issue was greeted by the typical social-media sneering. Over the past decade he has withdrawn from pro-ams and tournaments for a variety of reasons – the flu, his wrist, his back, other assorted ailments. By now he’s undoubtedly heard the whispers in the clubhouse. That he’s soft. That he’s a drama queen. That he’s a hypochondriac.
But there’s a mental toll that accompanies all the physical discomfort. He became emotional when discussing that aspect Friday.
“As an athlete, when you have an injury, it feels like your world is ending and you’ve got nothing else,” he said. “You’ve put everything that you possibly can in your life into one thing, and it can be very depressing and emotional at times. It’s hard, because you don’t see the end anywhere close. It feels like you’re just roaming around, and you can’t get out of this injury.”
Day has learned to live with back pain since he was a teenager. Sometimes it takes him 10 minutes to climb out of bed. Other times, like last year, he felt “phenomenal.” But he’s 31 now, with a wife and three young children, and at this rate it’s unclear how long his body will hold up to the constant strain of a violent, 120-mph swing.
Day has talked with swing coach Colin Swatton about scaling back his practice sessions, to reduce some of the wear and tear, but there are other, more invasive options to alleviate the discomfort. His childhood idol, Tiger Woods, needed four back surgeries (including a last-ditch fusion procedure) to finally get right. Day said surgery is off the table, at least for now.
“No. No. No, no, no, no. I want to stay away from that as much as possible,” he said. “Once you cut yourself, you can’t undo what you’ve done in there. I want to stay away from that. That’s the No. 1 key.”
And so he’ll try to maintain his fitness the best he can, even if it requires the unwavering patience of those around him. After his opening round, Day retired to the family’s RV. Instead of watching his and Bubba Watson’s kids smack balls outside, Day remained bedridden, an ice pack on his back.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Emotions go up and down.”
When he woke up sore and disappointed, he moped around the bus until his wife, Ellie, intervened.
“It’s the Masters,” she said. “You need to suck it up.”
“She’s in my corner,” Day said later. “She was trying to get me ready for today, and she ultimately did.”
To prepare for his Friday 67, he went through his twice-a-day protocols. Blowing into the balloon. Exercising for 30 minutes to create space in his joints. Lying face down on the table with his chiropractor. The entire routine takes more than an hour, and only then is he cleared to go to the range, to begin his full-bag warmup.
“If blowing in balloons is what I need to do to feel good,” Day said, “then I will do it all day long.”
Or at least until his battered body has finally had enough.