Jason Day was three over par through 12 holes of his first Masters last April but went 11 under in his next 24 holes, including a second-round 64, which tied the record for the lowest score in any round by a first-year competitor. Two days later, Day birdied 17 and 18 to tie for second place with playing partner Adam Scott.
The 24-year-old Filipino-Australian was among the biggest movers of 2011 not because he won — he did not, despite 10 top-10 finishes — but because he embraced the big occasion. There is no bigger stage than Augusta National, where no Australian has won, and Day finished second at the U.S. Open two months later, a largely forgotten result since he was eight shots behind Rory McIlroy.
"I'm encouraged," Day said recently, when asked to assess his season. "It was one of my goals to win, but I didn't achieve it. But if I look down the goals sheet for this year, I accomplished most of my goals. The only two I didn't accomplish were, I didn't finish in the top 10 of the FedEx Cup" — he was 12th, and finished a career-high ninth on the money list with almost $4 million — "and I didn't win a tournament. I wanted to have eight top-10s, and I had 10. I wanted to get inside the top 20 of the World Ranking, and I'm seven. I don't want to shoot for the sky because if I do I'll get disappointed if I don't make it."
It's been a turbulent ride since Day won the Nationwide Tour's Legend Financial Group Classic in 2007 at 19, becoming the youngest player to win a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. He spoke of hijacking the No. 1 ranking that was held by Tiger Woods, but he hurt his wrist while boxing toward the end of '07, hindering the start of his rookie year on Tour. Then he wound up injuring his back from beating too many balls. "I couldn't swing a club for two months," he said. "I had to do a bit of extra work in the gym, corrective exercises-band work, core work."
Returning to Q-school in December of '08 was a humbling setback for a player whose arrival had been so widely heralded. What's more, Day didn't make it through, and he had to play on sponsors' exemptions to start 2009. He earned enough to finish 69th on the money list and regain full status on Tour, and Day picked up his first and only victory at the H.P. Byron Nelson Classic in 2010, despite battling a nasty and persistent sinus infection that would require off-season surgery.
In other words, Tiger made it look way too easy. Day, the son of a working class Queensland family, whose late father gave him his first club, a 3-wood, after fishing it out of the trash, now admits he had unrealistic expectations for his first few years. The injuries haven't helped, and after marrying Ohio native Ellie Harvey, he's moved a bit — from Orlando, where he practiced at Bay Hill; to Dallas, where he joined Colonial; to Columbus, where he became a member at Muirfield Village.
Even 2011, his best year on Tour, was bittersweet for Day. He fired three sub-70 rounds to go into the final round of the Australian Open a shot behind John Senden, but he shot 74 to tie for fourth. The top qualifier for the International team at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, Day went 1-3-1. His 5-and-3 loss to Hunter Mahan, in which Day carded a front-nine 44, was shockingly off-key.
"I just played terrible," he said as he prepared for the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood C.C., just north of Los Angeles, in late November. He made more big numbers in the first round of the Chevron. Day went three under for his first 15 holes but finished double-bogey, double-bogey, bogey for a 74. (Day would finish 15th in a field of 18, 13 shots behind the winner, Woods.)
Despite his dispiriting first-round finish, Day played Ping-Pong and laughed in the locker room. The Chevron is not an official tournament, and it had been a long year. The Masters was still four months away, and he still had his health, and his caddie, coach and confidant, Col Swatton. Day was heading into an off-season in which he planned to sell his house in Dallas and buy a place in Florida. He and Ellie planned to start trying to have children. And it wasn't as if Day's peers were going full Tiger. Rickie Fowler had won once as a pro, overseas. McIlroy had gone mostly dormant since the U.S. Open. (He would win again in Hong Kong.)
"You just don't know what's going to happen," Day said. "David Duval broke through and then killed it. It's not like it's something you can learn overnight. It's something that you experience and learn over a certain amount of years, and that's how you become clutch and hit the good shots at the right time."