Jason Day finished tied for second in the 2011 Masters, an early indication that he had the potential to someday be the world’s No. 1 player.
Funny how these things work out. A week earlier – after another dispiriting performance in what was then his fourth season on the PGA Tour – Day almost quit the game.
It’s a different time now for Day, who has ascended to the top of the world golf rankings and is the hottest player on tour as he prepares for this week’s Masters at Augusta National.
But five years ago, after missing the cut at the Houston Open and with his first Masters looming only a few days away, Day sat on a bus with his agent, sports psychologist, caddie Colin Swatton and wife Ellie. His poor performance at Houston had been the latest in a series of them. Day brought up the idea of packing it all in and returning to his native Australia.
I don’t pay my guys to give me ‘yes’ answers. I pay them to tell me what’s going on in my life.
“I do not like the game right now,” Day recalled saying to those four members of his inner circle. “I’m just having a very, very hard time picking up the golf club to even just enjoy myself out there.”
It was a tough conversation to have. The consensus among the group was for Day to at least give Augusta a try. He’d qualified for the Masters by winning the Byron Nelson Championship in 2010. Why not at least take advantage of the invitation?
“So I went out there and I finished (tied for) second,” Day said, laughing. “Then I loved the game again.”
Day, 28, gives full credit to the pushback he received on the bus that day from those he trusts most.
“When you’re thinking about getting rid of caddies, coaches, agents and – sometimes – wives,” Day said, again laughing, “that wasn’t me. You have to pull them tighter and feed off them a lot more. You have to understand that they’re there to give you a straight answer. You listen to them, because they’re there for your best interests. Not to hurt you, not to give you a hard time. They are there to make you succeed.”
Day has won six of his past nine tournaments, including back-to-back triumphs recently at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC Match Play Championship.
Day had come too far to turn back.
When he was 12, his father died of stomach cancer, sending Day down the wrong track. Living alone with his mother, who had to get a second mortgage on their house, Day was drinking and getting into fights at home and school.
Golf, however, provided an outlet.
Under the stern guidance of coach and (now) caddie Swatton, Day quickly blossomed into one of the top youth golfers in Australia. He attended a golf academy where he was further inspired by a book about Tiger Woods that he borrowed from his roommate.
By the time he was 19, Day turned pro. That’s when the game changed for him.
“I go from a junior and amateur, where you’re really playing for nothing other than pride and toasters (as prizes),” he said. “It’s so much fun. You’re playing just to win because there’s no money involved.
$30,157,000 Day’s career earnings
“Once you turn professional, everything is based on results. You get nitpicked in the media. Stats are always up, saying he doesn’t drive it straight enough or hit enough greens. You have to perform, because if you don’t you’re off the tour.”
His first years were a struggle, with just four top-10s through his first four seasons. He finally broke through by winning the Byron Nelson in 2010, but consistency was tough to find. And the pressure mounted.
Finally, there was the release valve of that meeting on the bus. Day has since won nine times, including six of his past 13 starts. He won the 2015 PGA Championship (his first major triumph) and has back-to-back victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC Match Play Championship heading into the Masters.
“I knew with the work ethic and the drive and the motivation, the skills would develop over time,” Swatton said when Day won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Day’s recent play has vaulted him to the No. 1 ranking ahead of Jordan Spieth, last year’s Masters champion, and Rory McIlroy, who comes to Augusta seeking a career grand slam.
The only real question marks around Day now concern his health. He has battled vertigo and back problems, both of which he said are under control. He and Ellie also have two young children.
He also remembers that day he sat on the bus with his support team, the day when he almost quit.
“Golf is a very, very frustrating game,” Day said. “I don’t pay my guys to give me ‘yes’ answers. I pay them to tell me what’s going on in my life. It was a tough time. But I’m glad I got through it and I’m sitting here today No. 1 in the world.”