Jason Day Is Not Only Winning But Cruising to World No. 1

September 23, 2015

Matt Kuchar called it “amazing.” Jordan Spieth said he felt like an amateur. Danny Lee wondered aloud what course Jason Day was playing at last week’s BMW Championship at Conway Farms, outside Chicago. That’s where Day shot 61-63 to tie the PGA Tour’s 36-hole scoring record and ultimately beat Daniel Berger by six.

Luke Reardon, Day’s pal and former roommate at Hills College, their live-in golf academy back in Australia, has seen it all before.

“When Jason was 16 he won everything,” Reardon says. “The Australian Junior, the Queensland Junior, the New Zealand Junior, the Queensland Amateur, the World Junior. I remember one tournament, the Gary Player Classic in Brisbane, I shot a 1-under 71 in the first round, and I was in second place, already eight shots behind Jason.”

Fast-forward to 2015, and Day is savoring his best year on Tour: five wins so far, his first major title (after nine top-10s without one), and, after his runaway BMW victory — his fourth win in his last six starts — the No. 1 ranking. Now he’s on the verge of copping the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus at this week’s Tour Championship, although Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson could still stop him.

“I just want to win,” Day said after his latest title. “I’ve worked so hard.”

His dominance amid all those BMW sports cars; Suzann Pettersen’s poor sportsmanship (for which she later apologized) as the U.S. won the Solheim Cup; Tiger Woods’s announcement that he had undergone a second back surgery — all were reminders that golf is a sport and not just a game. The winners are often not just the most talented but also the hardest working; they’re nothing if they can’t play without pain, and it’s not enough just to win. True champions win (and lose) the right way.

Day’s history of physical ailments is well documented. He played through vertigo at the U.S. Open in June. Back problems knocked him out of two late-season tournaments in 2014. He has muddled through sinus surgery, and once injured his wrist while boxing.

Enter South African physiotherapist Cornel Driessen, who has worked with Rory McIlroy and others, and with whom Day has been training for a little over a year.

“Cornel told me I had the strongest legs and the weakest core he’d ever seen,” Day told me recently. Driessen relied on biomechanics to help Day protect his fragile back, transforming the golfer’s exercise routine to emphasize stability first. (Even so, Day tweaked his back again and WD’d from the Barclays pro-am on Aug. 26.)

Day also had to change his grip, starting with the 2014 WGC-Bridgestone, to take pressure off a bruised left thumb. And he needed to clean up his diet; to help him maintain his focus on the course he now ingests protein shakes every two or three hours.

“Everything’s kind of scheduled out,” he says.

Driessen praises Day’s dedication to the cause, but Day shrugs. What do you want? He’s an athlete. He’s tight with Matthew Dellavedova, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Aussie shooting guard. Day works out with members of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the NHL hockey team based where he lives with his wife, Ellie, and son, Dash, in Ohio.

“There’s a survivor element there,” Chuck Presto, senior VP of global sports marketing for TaylorMade, says of Day’s rough-and-tumble upbringing in Australia and health woes as a pro. “There’s a strength and a resolve that people maybe didn’t see until Jason won the PGA. You combine those survival skills and that toughness with his people skills, all that smiling and sweetness, and it’s a unique combination.”

When I interviewed Day when he was 19, for a story in GOLF Magazine, he had already announced his designs on the No. 1 ranking. On this day he added, of Woods, “I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see how Tiger hits it. If he hits it good, it’ll be intimidating, I reckon. He’s done it for more years, and he’s smarter, he’s mature, he’s bigger. But I’m a lot like him. I can play a number of different shots in my bag.”

People scoffed at his bravado, but Day is looking more like Woods every week. He’s winning in bunches, and by fat margins — three at the PGA, six at the Barclays and BMW.

Still, it must be said that the current No. 1 is far more likable than the old No. 1.

“I’d love to say I told you so,” Day said with a smile after winning the BMW. “But that wouldn’t be very nice. It’s O.K. to dream big. It’s O.K. to say what you want to do.”

That’s Day: an athlete who put in the work, an athlete on a hot streak, ever the good sport.

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