KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) Jason Day had all the trappings of a rising star when he made it to the PGA Tour as a 19-year-old with loads of power and no fear. Tiger Woods was at his peak, and the Australian teenager didn’t hide his desire to one day replace him at No. 1 in the world.
That was eight years ago.
Woods is returning from another season interrupted by injury and has slipped to No. 34 in the world. Rory McIlroy is at the top of the world ranking, not nearly by the same margin that Woods once enjoyed, but enough that Day said he would fit the mold as a dominant player that comes around once every 20 years.
The target hasn’t changed. Only the name.
”It’s not so much I’m trying to get a rivalry out of these guys,” Day said Thursday. ”I want the No. 1 spot. And the only way for me to get the No. 1 spot is to win. Unfortunately for me, I’ve only won twice. But I still feel like I’m young in my career. I’m 27. This is my eighth season on tour. Back in the day, they used to say young guys were in their 30s. Now it’s in your 20s, which is true.
”But my goal is to get to the No. 1 spot, and I know I can only do that if I win, and win consistently.”
It helps that he at least is in Kapalua, where the 34-man field of PGA Tour winners from 2014 tee off Friday in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Day is playing for only the second time, and it seems as though he should be a veteran of the Plantation Course by now.
Seven years have produced more injuries their trophies.
Last year was no exception. Even as Day was rolling to victory in the Accenture Match Play Championship, he was coping with a thumb injury that forced him to miss every tournament but the Masters over the next three months.
His back still flares up occasionally. He also has dealt with wrist injuries.
So there’s an additional goal this year – staying healthy. Day has put in the work on the gym and believes he can make it through the year in good shape. And he thinks if that happens, he can make strides toward the goal he has been talking about since he first came on tour.
He twice has given himself good looks at winning a major – the Masters in 2011 when Charl Schwartzel birdies his last four holes to win by two, and the U.S. Open at Merion in 2013 when Justin Rose was rock solid at the end of his round to win by two.
Equally important is keeping his brain healthy.
The guy that Day stopped just short of calling out when he joined the PGA Tour – Woods – has turned into a confidante of sorts. They played together during the opening round of the Hero World Challenge last month, and Woods usually has a hand in the pairings. Day said he stays in touch with Woods through text and phone calls.
”I pick his brain about stuff,” Day said. ”If you pick a guy’s brain, pick the best.”
Woods was the player he wanted to emulate when he first took to golf in Australia, and now one aspect of the game Day is trying to figure out is his comfort zone. He has noticed some players who are driven by high energy and emotion, and others who are at their best when they keep cool.
Day figures he is somewhere in between.
”I remember talking to Tiger about being comfortable,” he said. ”I’ve got to try to find that sweet spot and stick to that. I’m the guy who can’t get too high or too low, to enjoy myself but stay right in the middle. When you’re out there on the 16th hole at Augusta, it’s hard to keep yourself down. That’s what happened to me when I had the lead on the 16th tee. I had so many emotions going through my body that it sucked me out.
”It’s something we have to learn and experience.”
Day (No. 8) is one of two players from the top 10 in the world at the first PGA Tour event of the year. The other is Masters champion Bubba Watson. Three others from the top 10 – McIlroy, Rose and Adam Scott – are not playing this week.
It’s a great chance to get the year off to a great start. The Tournament of Champions is the hardest event to get in, though it might be the easiest to win. It’s a short field with only 34 players. Twelve of them have never seen the terrain of Kapalua, and some players are still shaking off the winter rust.
Day’s coach and caddie, Colin Swatton, was at Kapalua five days early to map out the course and the greens that can be so difficult to read. In his debut four years ago, Day made a reasonable debut with a tie for ninth.
”I feel this year is going to be a good year, as long as I stay healthy and as long as I’ve the will to improve,” he said.