The best round at the Players Championship last week was the Saturday seven-under 65 shot by Ken Duke, 47-year-old journeyman, on a day when the greens turned brown and the scoring average was 75.6. The best quote at the Players came from the magnanimous Jason Day, about 24 hours before he won the event and minutes after his own third-round 73: “What course was Ken Duke playing today? Can anyone tell me? Was he playing across the road?” And the best emotion expressed last week was … joy, from Day and from others. When the golf statisticians can quantify joy, they’ll have something even more useful than STROKES GAINED–PUTTING.
Joy was sweeping over the baked Stadium course last week like the Whip/Nae Nae dance craze. You saw it from Duke, formerly such a sedentary man, when he hit it close on 16 in the final round and raised his hands like a symphony conductor, urging the fans to join him in celebration. You saw it from Will Wilcox, who turned the tee box on the 17th hole into a dance floor/NFL end zone after making an ace there on Friday afternoon with a pitching wedge and a yellow ball. And you saw it from Day on the driving range on Thursday morning, in the pressroom on Sunday night and most everywhere in between.
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He had an 8:43 a.m. tee time, playing in a threesome with Branden Grace and Jordan Spieth on a course that an ordinary tourist pays $495 to play. (Now there is a triumph of marketing.) The winner would get $1.89 million. Day was already the No. 1–ranked player in the world. He had a growing collection of encouraging texts from Woods. Day has a beautiful wife, a young son and a baby daughter. And while he was striding toward his waiting golf bag, a man on the range said to him, “This is a great thing, to make a living as a professional golfer, isn’t it?” Day looked at the guy, smiled and said, “You know what? On a morning like this? Absolutely, mate.” While taking on the world, Day is taking it in too.
Davis Love Jr., a golf teacher who learned under the legendary Harvey Penick, used to tell his students, “Let your attitude determine your golf game. Don’t let your golf game determine your attitude.” Well, Day went out and shot 63 on that Thursday. Before his round was over he had holed a 30-footer, a 13-footer, a 12-footer, an 11-footer and every putt he looked at—13 in all—from six feet and in.
For Day, for Spieth—for any of us, really—wouldn’t it be nice if we could just turn on the GOOD ATTITUDE switch and start holing all of our six-footers? Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. For one thing, good putting is rooted in good mechanics, and Day’s are excellent. More to the point, joy must come from deep within.
Day, 28, talked about that on Sunday night, after securing his seventh win in 17 starts since finishing a shot out of the three-man playoff at last year’s British Open. (The Canadian Open, the PGA Championship, the Barclays and the BMW Championship last year, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the WGC Match Play and the Players this year.) Day said he even was able to find something resembling joy when his son, Dash, got sick late on Saturday and threw up on his parents.
“I knew if I let that get to me, I could possibly lose the tournament,” Day said. “If I say, ‘Oh, man—Dash kept me up all night because he was sick, and it just isn’t going my way.'” The golfer went for this thought instead: “O.K., this is just something that’s been thrown at me. How do I handle it? I’ve got to come into the day enjoying myself and go from there.” Into the day. Some phrase.
We’re not going crazy here. There are a variety of ways to play world-class golf. Ben Hogan’s demeanor was dour, Jack Nicklaus didn’t take you on a joyride, and Woods was the king of red-ass golf. Spieth is fiery, but his baseline mantra would appear to be steady, steady, steady. (He missed the cut at the Players, in his first tournament since the Masters, and he talked last week about how he has been too hard on himself of late.) But exuding joy, as an approach to the game, worked for Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson, among many other legends, and it is clearly working for Day.
Adam Scott, who attended the same boarding school in Australia as Day, described his countryman’s run as “Tigeresque.” Well, it is—except that Woods ran the tables pretty much for a decade and was a far better putter and chipper than Day is, as is Spieth. If Tiger in 2000 was a perfect 10 as a putter, and Spieth since he turned pro in early ’13 is a 9.5, Day is something like a 9.0. (No, there is no science being trotted out here.) But Day does have something Spieth does not. You know how you have a 150-yard club? Well, Day was saying last week that he has a 300-yard club. It’s his 2-iron, at least in dry conditions. You’ll see it at Oakmont too.
On that difficult scoring day on Saturday, Hideki Matsuyama shot 67, which got him into Sunday’s last twosome with Day, who led after 18, 36 and 54 holes. Speaking of Duke and Matsuyama, Day said on Saturday night, “They’re probably the two happiest people on this whole Tour right now.” Joy’s cousin, right there.
On Sunday, while shooting 73 himself, Matsuyama watched Day close with a one-under 71 for a four-day total of 15-under 273. That was good for a four-shot win. When it was over, the 24-year-old Japanese golfer packed up his Toyota Sienna minivan and made the three-hour drive to his U.S. home in Orlando alongside his manager, Bob Turner. They spoke in Japanese, and Turner asked his client what role joy plays in his golfing life.
Matsuyama, who beat Rickie Fowler in a playoff in Phoenix earlier this year, thought about the question for a minute or two and finally said, “Joy is winning.”
Woods would have said the same thing at 24. Jason Day would flip that. He’ll tell you that winning is joy, as is standing on a range early on a Thursday morning, shiny balls at your feet, all that unknown ahead of you.