Time of Day: Behind the Scenes of Jason's Major Breakthrough
Sean Foley lay on a leather couch in the Whistling Straits clubhouse last Saturday night, telling a story that illustrates just how much Jordan Spieth has gotten into the heads of his peers. Foley, a swing coach to the stars, was on the practice putting green during the wind delay at last month's British Open when Spieth stroked a midrange putt. The ball stopped a couple of inches from the cup, but then a hard gust blew it in. Throwing up his arms in mock disgust, Sergio García shouted, "Even when you miss it, you make it!"
This is what poor Jason Day had to overcome last week at the 97th PGA Championship in Kohler, Wis. Day, 27, had been become golf's star-crossed kid, an awesome talent with a disconcerting inability to get it done at major championships. That he had contended until the bitter end at Augusta National (twice), the Old Course, Merion and Chambers Bay was testament to his sublime combination of power and touch, but something was holding Day back; just last month at the British Open he had an 18-foot downhill putt on the 72nd hole to join the playoff but somehow left it short. He walked off in a haze of what he called "disbelief" and "shock."
But Day has a flinty resilience that comes from a tough upbringing in Australia. After his father died when he was 12, his mother sent him to a golf academy far from the streets where he was regularly getting drunk and causing trouble. So the week after the heartbreak at St. Andrews, Day picked himself up and rallied to win the Canadian Open, and at Whistling Straits he played some of the best golf of his life across the first three days. Late on Saturday it looked as if Day might have to hold off only lurkers like Matt Jones, Branden Grace and Anirban Lahiri to get his breakthrough. Then Spieth mounted the kind of charge that has already become a trademark.
After a birdie at the 1st, his round had stalled with nine consecutive pars, so on the par-5 11th, Spieth lashed a monster drive. Explaining his technique, he said, "I was pissed so I swung really hard"; after a birdie there, "the holes started looking bigger." Just like that Spieth turned ravenous, pouring in five more birdies for a back-nine 30 that propelled him from irrelevancy to within two shots of the lead and into the final group, alongside Day. Spieth, who turned 22 in July, lacks Tiger Woods's seething intensity and raw strength, but his relentless drive and hyperefficiency have made him nearly as feared already. To have to fend off Spieth seemed like just another bad beat for Day, but this test of his fortitude turned out to be exactly what he needed. "I'm going to give him a fight," Day said following the third round, with some steel in his voice.
On Sunday, Day was so intimidated he birdied four of the first seven holes. That left Spieth four back, and though he fought hard, Day simply refused to let him apply any pressure. The signature moment of this overpowering victory came on the 11th hole. Spieth had birdied the 10th to trim the deficit to three, and it felt like the moment when Day would allow the fates to conspire against him, as they always have. Instead, he mashed a 382-yard drive into the skinniest part of the fairway. When he got to his ball in the right rough, Spieth was thunderstruck to discover he was 80 yards back. "You've got to be kidding me," he yelled down the fairway at the 6-foot, 195-pound Day, who responded by flexing one of his brawny biceps. Day needed only a wedge for his second shot, securing a birdie that restored his lead to four strokes. He roared home with a 67, pushing his four-round total to 20 under, a scoring record for the major championships. Whistling Straits may have been softened a bit by rain, but disaster still lurked on every swing; Day was simply that good. "We play a lot of golf together, and that's the best I've ever seen him play," said Spieth, whose 17-under total had previously been bettered only by Woods and Bob May since the PGA Championship went to stroke play in 1958.
Day called the victory "one of the best moments of my life," but the tears that poured out on the final hole were not joy, exactly.
Day's father, Alvin, was a native of Australia, while his mother, Dening, hails from the Philippines. She describes herself as a "mail bride"—she had a long correspondence with Alvin but did not meet him until he flew to her homeland for their wedding. Jason was born in Beaudesert, on Australia's Gold Coast. His parents worked at a nearby port, Dening as a clerk and her husband manning the scales. "There was a big difference between the haves and the have-nots," she says. "We were on the bottom of the have-nots."
Jason started playing golf at age six. His father pushed him hard to excel, which created only part of the strain in their relationship; Jason says Alvin was an alcoholic. After he died of stomach cancer, the family fractured. Kim, one of Jason's two older sisters, ran away from home and lived on the streets for more than a year before returning, while for Jason alcohol became an escape. "He was a lost soul," Dening says.
Believing that golf was her son's only road to salvation, Dening sold their house to pull together enough money to send Jason to board at Kooralbyn International School, a seven-hour drive from home. Colin Swatton was the golf coach there, and the two got off to a rocky start. On their first afternoon together Swatton instructed Day to work on his short game. "I told him to f--- off," says Day. "I was still a punk." He stormed off and played a few holes before having a moment of clarity. "I was out there thinking, Man, my family is sacrificing so much for me to come here. So I went back and apologized."
"I don't think we've had a cross word since," says Swatton, 46, who now serves as a caddie, coach and father figure for Day. "From that day forward Jason outworked every other kid at the academy." Reading a biography about Woods helped Day focus his ambition; just as a young Tiger had done with Jack Nicklaus, Day taped above his bed a time line of his hero's accomplishments.
After a successful amateur career Day turned pro in 2006, at 18, and moved to Orlando. With Swatton on the bag, he played well enough at Q school to earn status on the Nationwide tour for '07. He won the 11th start of his rookie year, becoming the youngest champion in the history of that tour. Afterward, Day raised eyebrows, and a few hackles, by declaring his intent to unseat Woods at the top of the World Ranking.
Two days after the Nationwide victory he had his first date with Ellie Harvey, who was working as a waitress at a pub that Swatton frequented. They dined at Applebee's, with Swatton, ever the loyal wingman, tagging along. After dinner Day sent him home so he could squire Ellie to the movies, and six months later she moved in with him. "Things moved really fast," Ellie says, "but that's kind of the story of his life. He had to grow up really fast, so at an early age he knew what he wanted."
In 2009 they were married in a barn near her hometown of Lucas, Ohio (pop. 602). While most Tour pros are clustered in the Sun Belt, the Days live in Columbus to be near Ellie's large, close-knit family. In '12 their son was born—Dash, named for the rambunctious kid in The Incredibles. "Through Ellie and her family, Jason has found the stability he never knew growing up," says Swatton.
It has not been as easy for Day to find his place between the ropes. Even as he began popping up on major-championship leader boards, he still had only one win, at the 2010 Byron Nelson Classic. His brash comments about being No. 1 were often brought up by the media as a kind of taunt about his underachievement. It took a tragedy to push Day to a different level. In November '13, Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines. Day was in Australia, relaxing with his mom and two sisters and gearing up for the World Cup, in which he was to play for his home country alongside his good mate Adam Scott. Days went by without any contact with Dening's family until her brother was able to travel to check on the missing relatives. "They were gone," says Dening. "Everything was gone." Her mother and another brother perished in the storm, along with six cousins, among the death toll that exceeded 6,000.
Day was devastated for his mom, but Dening is as tough as Tida Woods—she insisted he compete in the World Cup to honor their lost family, saying, "Go win the tournament. We will cry afterward." Her son played the most inspired golf of his life, joining with Scott to win the team title and holding off his countryman for individual honors. "It was incredibly emotional," Day says. "I found something deep inside myself."
Even after he won the 2014 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and this year's Farmers Insurance Open, Day has continued to absorb hard lessons. At this year's U.S. Open he was felled by a bout of vertigo caused by an ear infection, but he bravely played on. Day shared the lead after 54 holes and tied for ninth. "I learned a lot about how far I could really push myself mentally and physically," he says. "It's just a matter of how much do you want it. And I really want it. I mean, I'm willing to put my body on the line just to get a taste of that greatness." He even took some positives from the British Open, saying it was the most calm he had ever felt coming down the stretch of a big tournament. "Unfortunately," Day said on the eve of the PGA, "some people make it look easier than others. Some people get there quicker than others. We're humans. We're not machines out there. It's very easy to make poor choices and have bad swings every now and then. But we were so blessed with Tiger and Rory [McIlroy] and Jordan, just recently, that winning looks so easy."
Spieth's finish at the PGA elevated him to No. 1 in the World Ranking, but even before the tournament began he was already acting like the sport's alpha male. Phil Mickelson has made it a tradition to organize money games on Tuesdays at the majors, and last week he enlisted Rickie Fowler to take on Spieth and his close friend Justin Thomas, a Tour rookie. Spieth woofed publicly that he was going to trot out his U.S. Open trophy, the one thing Mickelson can't buy with his many millions.
"When I heard that, I absolutely loved it because it's the kind of crap I would pull," Mickelson says. Of course, Spieth left the trophy at home, but it was the subject of much trash talk. Spieth's team was 1 up heading to the 18th hole, where he hit a toe-hook off the tee into a horrendous lie on the edge of a fairway bunker. With one foot in the sand, Spieth summoned a miracle shot to within eight feet of the cup. Fowler poured in a 40-footer for birdie, but Spieth gutted his putt to win the match and ensure a few crisp Benjamins would change hands. "I don't want to say that birdie was complete bulls---, but it really was," says Mickelson.
Spieth produced a similar highlight on Sunday—a bunker shot on 16 that prompted Day to say, "It baffles me the stuff that he can prove out there"—but in the end Spieth simply didn't have the firepower to keep up. Day is now third in the World Ranking and along with Spieth and the 26-year-old McIlroy makes up a telegenic, cross-cultural and immensely appealing neo--Big Three. Reaching No. 1 remains the goal, and Day is willing to pay the price: He has eliminated sugar and alcohol from his diet, and he hits the gym with a vengeance six days a week.
Ellie is due in November with the couple's second child, and after the baby arrives, the Days will continue to travel the Tour as happy vagabonds in a tricked-out motor coach. Dash is a little ham, and he stole the show during the awards ceremony, but at one point while in his father's arms he pleaded, "Can we go home now?" He was too young to realize that after a long, hard journey, his dad is finally where he is supposed to be.