SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Jason Day’s chances to defend his PGA Championship title may hinge on a seating chart. At the champion’s dinner here Tuesday night, the No. 1 player in the world sat next to Doug Steffen, long-time director of golf at Baltusrol Golf Club. Lucky Doug, right?
More like lucky Jason. Before this week the 28-year-old Aussie had never played Baltusrol’s Lower course, a test for even the most experienced players. So he welcomed the chance to pick Steffen’s brain. In 2005, when the PGA was last conducted here on this demanding A.W. Tillinghast design, Phil Mickelson put in extra work with Steffen, and it paid off in a big way. While sizing up a birdie putt on the fourth hole during the final round, Mickelson leaned on some green-reading knowledge he had acquired from the Baltusrol pro. Mickelson holed the putt, which he later cited as crucial to his victory.
On Tuesday, it was Day’s time to glean advice from the 66-year-old Steffen. They talked through dinner, going hole by hole for half an hour: where to miss, where to be aggressive off the tee, how putts breaks away from the mountain and how if Day can get through the first seven holes at even par, birdie holes await on the backside.
“It’s hard to tell the No. 1 player in the world what clubs to hit off tees and stuff like that,” Steffen says. “But the main thing I told him was the golf course gives you options and you have to decide what those options are.”
Fast-forward to Wednesday afternoon as Steffen walked the course with Day and his caddie, Colin Swatton. It was like a scene from a Disney movie: the sage guide, his white hair catching the July sun, walking with the young phenom who asked questions, inquired about putting lines, and made mental notes, with Swatton was making actual notes.
On the 649-yard, par-5 17th hole, Day hit his drive into the left fairway bunker, which had been the topic of conversation between him and Swatton on the tee as they decided over the big stick vs. the 3-wood.
As they approached the ball, Day turned to Swatton and said, “Three-wood’s so much better.” Steffen interjected, “If you’re downwind, Jason, you can blow it past [the bunker].”
“Problem is if you hit 3-wood and you miss it, you’ll still have to hit it out of there,” Swatton said motioning to the bristled clumps of rough.
After laying up from the bunker, Day dropped a ball and pounded a 3-wood into the rarely-reached-in-two green. His ball found the front bunkers, which Swatton characterized as “OK” in his game-plan notes.
The trio agreed Jason could get home in two with the right wind, and Day told me after his round that he actually likes the play with a helping wind, because the front bunkers are on an upslope, which allows him to be aggressive. (On Wednesday he hit a magnificent sand shot to about four feet and drained the birdie putt.)
For a guy who had never played this long, tilting layout before, Day looked remarkably comfortable. (One media member had his score, unofficially, at five under.) “Comfortable” was a word Day frequently uttered in his press conference Wednesday morning and again after his round.
“I just want to be able to feel comfortable on the golf course,” he said. “Whether that’s hitting 2-iron on a driver hole or a driver on a 2-iron hole.
“The biggest thing is to really manage my ego in that way in a sense to sometimes pull back or when I do feel comfortable to attack it.”
Day hasn’t been quite so comfortable off the course in recent days. He’s dealing with the remnants of the Dad Virus acquired from his two sick kids, and on Tuesday night he had to take his wife Ellie to the hospital to treat an allergic reaction they couldn’t get under control.
Day tied for 17th at the Canadian Open last week after a second-round 76 derailed his chances. A week earlier, at the British Open at Troon, his game never quite clicked en route to a T-22 finish. At the U.S. Open at Oakmont, a third-round charge gave Day hope on Sunday. But after his tee shot came up short of the 17th green, he made a mess of the hole to lose any hope of putting pressure on eventual champion Dustin Johnson.
Earlier in the year, he had looked all but unbeatable, with victories at Bay Hill, the WGC Match Play and the Players. A bounce-back win here this week would make him the frontrunner for Player of the Year honors, while also providing more of a cushion in the world ranking between him and DJ, the hard-charging world No. 2.
Getting locked in at a venue that is totally foreign presents a major challenge for a player like Day, to whom “comfort” and planning are so essential to his success.
Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner in the tower for CBS this week, compares Day to a fighter pilot managing his job with rigorous planning. Whereas Jordan Spieth, Faldo says, is more like a painter who relies on creativity and exploration on every shot.
“The artist tries to fix things by painting more and the pilot, when he wants to fix things, he goes into more checklists, and you really want a little bit to cross,” Faldo told me Wednesday. “The pilot should want to just freewheel and just play some golf.”
Baltusrol, for all of its challenges, may be the perfect place for Day to just play, by virtue of its unfamiliarity. No overthinking. No over-planning. Just go play. Shut off the noise, the mounting pressure from the media and fans, and the stresses of fatherhood.
Day spoke Wednesday about the pressure of expectations, both external and internal — the struggle of knowing how good he can be and failing to live up to that standard. “I always have high expectations of myself,” he said. “I guess that’s why when I play a round that I don’t play too well, I’m in the back nearly crying myself to sleep.”
Day added that he is looking forward to an upcoming three-week break before the FedEx Cup playoffs. Perhaps the promise of rest on the horizon might unshackle him from the burden created, ironically, by his own talent and successes.
In the first two rounds of this 98th PGA Championship Day will play with Mickelson, who 11 years ago unriddled Baltusrol with the help of its learned pro. The local knowledge emboldened Mickelson. Might it do the same for Day?