When Jason Day lifted the Wanamaker Trophy at Whistling Straits on August 16, 2015, he looked like the best golfer in the world. Hell, he was.
He hasn’t won another major since.
The last time he won anything was the Wells Fargo Championship in May, 2018. That was 147 weeks ago.
But now there’s signs – even proof – that long drought is coming to an end. But in order to do so he is taking a gamble that could make or break his career.
Here’s how the Aussie enigma climbed to the top of the tree, fell back down, and is making his spectacular comeback to golf’s Everest.
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REACHING THE TOP
The year of 2015 was a special one for Day.
He was ranked 8th in the world at the beginning of the season and by October he had climbed to No.1 for the first time, although ended the season ranked 2nd.
Soon after he would become No.1 again and stay there for 51 weeks. To put that in perspective it’s the seventh longest streak since the World Golf Rankings were created.
Heading into the PGA Championship in August, Day was in some kind of form, but it wasn’t winning form.
At the two previous major tournaments, the US Open and the Open Championship, Day had held a share of the lead at the end of day three.
He would end those in tied 9th and tied 4th respectively. His Open campaign was, though, seriously hampered by a bad case of vertigo, which saw him collapse on-course at one point.
So when Day returned to the clubhouse on day three at Whistling Straits and again led the field, it threatened to be another case of close but no cigar for the then-27-year-old.
But the Aussie did something different this time around. He held his nerve and shot a 5-under par 67 to win by three shots, holding off the dynamic Texan Jordan Spieth.
Day broke down in tears before he had even sunk his putt on the 18th. Not only had he won his first major, he had broken Tiger Woods’ record for most strokes under par to win a major.
Day shot 20-under for the tournament and Spieth conceded no golfer could have run the Aussie down on that final day.
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“There wasn’t a whole lot I could have done,” Spieth said at the time.
“He played like he’d won seven or eight majors. He took it back. He wailed on it. It was a stripe show.”
Day, of course, had not won seven or eight majors but the way he played that day had many people believing he certainly had it in him to do so.
Australia hadn’t had a major winner since Adam Scott’s 2013 Masters heroics.
The country finally had another golfer capable of beating, and being, the best. Day, surely, would be bringing more silverware Down Under.
FALLING BACK TO EARTH
Day won two more tournaments before the end of 2015 to make it five victories for the year, and he was ranked 2nd.
In 2016 he won three times – although no majors – and climbed to No.1, where he sat for almost an entire year. He was on top of the world.
Then things began to turn pear-shaped. A chronic problem with Day’s back surfaced and he stopped winning.
He played 22 tournaments in 2017 and won none, missing the cut three times and he fell to 13th by the end of that season.
In 2018 he won twice but he missed the cut at the US Open. The pain in his back was beginning to take over his career.
By the 2019 season Day was withdrawing from tournaments and receiving cortisone injections mid-play to treat the pain.
Miraculously at the 2019 Masters he ended up with a tie of 5th place – two shots behind the winner Tiger Woods – after receiving on-course medical attention.
Day typically liked to spend two hours every day practising his putting – which was a strength of his game – but with his back in such a state he was only managing half an hour per session.
“I can only putt for 30 minutes a day,” Day said at the start of 2020.
“The gist of it is my rib cage is kind of out of alignment and starts to pull on certain things and certain muscles. If I swing a lot and also putt (being in) a bent over position things start to tighten up.”
Respected PGA Tour commentator Brandel Chamblee was not surprised by these developments.
“If you have a short, quick golf swing then you are going to have a short, quick career,” Chamblee said of Day’s injury problems last year.
Day had fallen off the perch and was tumbling down the rankings list fast.
In the space of 12 months he fell from 14th in the world to 37th at the end of 2019.
During the 2020 season the Australian slid to as low as 63rd – the first time in more than a decade he had been ranked outside golf’s top 50.
Last year Day played 21 tournaments and missed the cut seven times – the most since he missed failed to make the weekend 15 times in 2008, when he was ranked 224th in the world.
It was no longer a question of whether he could win another major. It was a question of whether his career as a golfer could continue past Christmas.
By the end of the 2020 season Day knew he had to drastically overhaul his game or else his career would be over.
And overhaul it he did. In fact, Day completely reimagined the golfer. The one you’ll see at the Masters in April is a different player. A new coach, new action, and new sticks.
Firstly he parted ways with Colin Swatton, who had coached him for two decades, and employed Chris Como to help change his swing.
Como famously helped the also-injury riddled Tiger Woods make his comeback from 2014 to 2017, and currently works with last year’s US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau.
“We’re trying to get better hip movement, we’re going to get a little bit deeper on the backswing in regard to the hip motion, and I’m trying to get a little bit more turn in the upper body,” Day told PGATour.com in January.
“Right now, if I do it correctly, it doesn’t hurt my back, which is tremendous.”
Day has also ditched TaylorMade – his brand since 2006 – and he’s opted to enter the 2021 season with no set equipment sponsor.
At last month’s Farmers Insurance Open his bag consisted of a Ping driver, a TaylorMade 3-wood, Mizuno irons, Artisan Prototype wedges, an Odyssey putter, and Bridgestone balls.
“He thought the gear he was using wasn’t for him anymore. He could have gone to Callaway, could’ve gone to Titleist, but he thought he would mix it up,” Australian pro Paul Gow explained to foxsports.com.au of Day’s licorice all-sorts kit.
“Financially he doesn’t need a lot of money from manufacturers anymore because he’s made that much money that money shouldn’t count. I actually like the way that he’s going, I like the way he’s going to use what he wants to use.
“He would have in the off-season practised with a lot of gear, he would have tried a lot of gear. He’s mixing it up a bit, I think he’s trying to find what will suit.”
Gow understands what Day is doing. He went through a similar transformation himself as a golfer.
And that’s why he knows it’s a big, big gamble.
“I’ve done it, it’s really hard. You could sink or swim, he really could. We might not see Jason Day in 12 months’ time competing,” Gow warned.
“There’s been other players that have messed with their golf swings and not gone on to the next level. To now change that – the thing that’s been successful – and not just do a Tiger Woods who cuts down his playing schedule, is a real gutsy move I think.
“The proof will be in the pudding in six months’ time, whether it’s sustainable, whether he is competing and winning golf tournaments, that will be the telling point.
“At this particular time he thinks he is going to win the Masters. And he possibly could.”
‘TIGER-LIKE’ SIGNS THE DROUGHT IS ABOUT TO END
Day is three tournaments in to his career… his new career, that is. Jason Day 2.0.
He’s 33 years old and he’s feeling so confident in his new game that he has shifted focus from milking two more years out of his pain-riddled back, to staying on the pro tour for a long, long time.
“I feel like I’ve kind of set myself a goal where I want to play to 50 now because I feel good with my body,” Day told Golf Australia earlier this month.
“I was hoping I was going to get to 35.”
His win drought still hasn’t ended. He missed the cut at the first two tournaments of the year and then he finished tied for 7th at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
But Gow can see signs Day is trending towards winning tournaments once again.
“His career, if you took a look at it and it was on a graph of some sort, it’s been up and down,” Gow said.
“His first two rounds back this year – Torrey Pines and the Waste Management in Phoenix – he looked out of sorts, he didn’t look that great. I think the second round at Phoenix he started to hit some good shots, and as a player if you hit one good shot it starts to build confidence, and last week at Pebble it looked like that.
“He’s on that upward swing, it’s a bit like a stock – get it on the way up. He’s on that upward trend, we’ve seen it before. The trend is for him to really get deep into his game.
“That graph I was talking about, it goes up, his work ethic is off the map, he’s working really hard and he’s so into his golf. That’s the beauty of Jason Day, he can get into that zone when he puts his mind to it, he really can get to another space that a lot of players can’t get to.
“That is Tiger-like, that’s what Tiger does and he does it more often than anybody else in the game.
“It will be interesting to see if (Day) can sustain that, if he does get back to the world No.1 and winning majors, how long that will last.”
Australia hasn’t had a Masters winner since Adam Scott donned the green jacket in 2013.
Jason Day will walk to the tee at Augusta National on April 8.
A new golfer, carrying the hopes of a nation on his pain-free back.
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