Jason Day is still young. You are reminded of this not by the age on his driver's license (24), or by his fuzzy goatee, but by his disarming humility. He is giving a series of interviews on a cold, windy day at Muirfield Village in Ohio, Jack's club, and after a session with CNN, Day nibbles at the remains of his lunch as the cameraman packs up. That's when Day says something that is as memorable as anything he revealed to his interviewer: "Can I give you a hand, mate?"
Day, who grew up Salvation Army-poor in Australia, whose dad died when he was 12, whose mother sold the family home so he could go to a golf academy, is not so far removed from his hardscrabble roots that he's above folding tripods and wrapping lenses. He's still just an earnest kid trying to do the right thing — that is, when he's not laughing at the big-ticket toys he can buy with the wages of success. "I didn't have a dollar to my name in 2006," he says.
Now the Ohio resident owns three cars and two houses, and is a member at three clubs, including Jack's place. After a year in which he notched two runner-up finishes in the majors, Day discusses the sacrifices he has made on his rapid ascent, his teammates' tiff after the Presidents Cup, and the day his wife became Superman.
Let's start with the Presidents Cup. After your big season, fans expected a lot from you at Royal Melbourne. But you finished 1-3-1 and lost 5 and 3 to Hunter Mahan on Sunday. What happened in your singles match?
I just played bad. The thing is, once you get on your back foot [at Royal Melbourne] it's hard to make birdies. It was one of the worst rounds that I've played in a while.
Did the nerves get to you?
No, no. I just played terrible.
You guys need to win one of these things.
Yeah, we've lost seven straight. The thing is the Americans do it every year, Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup. I was watching what they did, and they would go as a team, eat as a team — I mean, we did that stuff, but it's easier to bond and have a bonding session when you all speak the same language. The Koreans stuck with the Koreans, the Japanese with the Japanese, the South Africans kind of stuck with themselves, the Australians stuck with themselves. Every now and then you'd mingle here and there.
Was the Robert Allenby–Geoff Ogilvy feud festering during the Presidents Cup, or did it bubble up after?
No, I think it was the comments that Allenby said after. I didn't even know exactly what was said.
He said his partners hadn't played well, presumably by way of excusing his 0-4 record.
Yeah, you just don't point the finger when that stuff happens. Everyone tried their hardest. It's not like we were going out there trying to lose. It may have been a little harsh for Allenby to say that.
So everyone was rah-rah in the team room?
Everyone was great. That whole week everyone was fantastic. It wasn't until the [Australian] PGA where Ogilvy actually [argued with] Allenby in front of 40 people or whatever it was. I can understand pulling [Allenby] aside into a room, but not in the open where people can have their two cents.
So they were both in the wrong.
Yeah, well, the thing is, how old are we? From the comments that I've heard, hey, just pull him aside, say you were disappointed in the comments. Obviously they'd had a few drinks and, you know, we're all grown-ups here. We're not teenagers trying to fight it out.
You tied for second at the Masters last April. What was it like in your first attempt to become the first Aussie to win at Augusta?
I'd dreamt about playing Augusta, but with the way that final day went and the roars for myself and Scotty [Adam Scott] and Charl [Schwartzel] and Tiger and everything, it was 100 times better than what I'd dreamt. It was the most fun I've ever had playing a tournament.
You've talked about spreading the ashes of your dad, who died when you were 12, at Augusta, as he requested. Will you actually do that?
I've got to wait until I get to No. 1. If I did it right now [the club] wouldn't approve it. So it's a bit premature to discuss. It's one of those things where if I did it quietly they would never know. [Smiles]
Rory McIlroy proved he has an extra gear with his lights-out performance at the U.S. Open in June. Do you have another gear that we've yet to see?
I have no idea. You just don't know what's going to happen. Like 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, and that's how you become clutch and hit the good shots at the right time.
You're currently in the top 10 in the World Rankings, but you didn't win in 2011. Are you encouraged by all of the top-10 finishes, or discouraged that you didn't manage to get a win?
I'm encouraged. It was one of my goals to win in 2011, but I didn't achieve it. But if I look down the goals sheet for this year, the only two I didn't accomplish were that I didn't finish in the top 10 of the FedEx Cup, and I didn't win. I wanted to have eight top-10s, and I had 10. I wanted to get inside the top 20 of the World Rankings. [Day was No. 8 at press time.]
What do you have to do to improve?
I need to improve my shorter stuff with my irons, from 100 to 175 yards. If I can hit a few more greens with those clubs and tighten up the proximity to the hole, that would help a lot. I need to get better with my 3-wood and hybrid. Those are the clubs I missed the majority of my fairways with. I did miss some fairways with the driver, but it's not that far off the map; it's not like Tiger Woods off the map. [Laughs]
Speaking of Tiger, you caused a stir in 2007 when you said that your aim was "to work really hard and take him down." Any regrets about that?
Not at all. I'm still trying to be No. 1 in the world, like everyone else is out there.
Do you still look up to Tiger?
I do. He's still — whether or not he's playing bad right now — he's still Tiger Woods, and he won 14 majors in such a short period of time, won 71 times or whatever. He dominated for so long. I have a massive amount of respect for him. He evolved the game. He turned professional golfers into athletes.
Greg Norman told us that he liked your upside because you didn't grow up with money. Presumably that means he feels like you won't be complacent. True?
Yes. When I grew up, 20 bucks was massive to me. In 2006 I didn't have a dollar to my name. Not one dollar. I didn't want to go back to where I was. I don't know about Nicklaus and his story, but Tiger, he didn't come from a silver spoon. Most guys, like the NFL players and basketball players, come from nothing.
Growing up in a small town in Queensland, you got your first golf club off a garbage heap, and did your clothes shopping at Salvation Army.
Yeah, five bucks a bag. We'd go there with 10 bucks, and me and my sisters would cram in as much stuff as we could. I turned up at school one day in this shirt I had from the Salvation Army — it was this tight, button-up, short-sleeve T-shirt that was two sizes too small for me — and everyone from school teased me because they said I looked like a refugee. They said, "Did you just get off the boat?" [Laughs] I was the only Asian kid in my school [Day's mother is Filipino; his late father was Australian], so they thought I was just off the boat.
You told CNN, "People would wake up at five in the morning and come practice with me, but they'd only last a week." Do you still work harder than most?
I work smarter these days. I used to work really hard. I sacrificed so much to get to where I am. A lot of people look at me and say, "Oh, he's 24 and he's on the PGA Tour, he's rich and he's young. He's got everything going for him." But they don't understand I worked my tail off as a kid. I didn't have a social life. I didn't have a full-on girlfriend until I was like just finishing school. I sacrificed a lot.
Your caddie, Col Swatton, was your coach back then.
Yes. He's been my coach for 12 years now. He's family. It feels like he's my right arm. I couldn't play golf without him.
So you won't fire him by text?
No, of course not. I'll give him a courtesy call, or an e-mail. [Laughs]
You had a tumultuous start to your professional career.
I did. The year I finished fifth on the money list on the Nationwide Tour [in 2007] I hurt my wrist boxing. My truck got stolen and I hurt my back in 2008. Then I had to go back to Q School. And then, 2009, I can't remember what I did. Oh — 2009 I got married. And in 2010 I got sick and had to have sinus surgery.
How'd your truck get swiped?
It was in Fort Worth, Tex. I had a 2004 Cadillac EXT, put some nice, 24-inch rims on it, tinted-out windows — it was a special truck. We were at Best Buy near the new Cowboys stadium, four in the afternoon. They smashed in the back window and started it up. Ellie [Harvey, Day's now wife], man, I've never seen her like this. As soon as she saw that truck she ran after it. She was like Superman. I don't know what she was doing, if she thought she could overpower the guy, but she was bolting after the truck, which was zooming off. She ran like 100 yards.
What happened to the car?
They stripped it for every possible part. The police found it a week later.
Now that you've married an American, will you apply for U.S. citizenship?
If I did, I'd be able to play for the Ryder Cup team, but I'm not going to do that. If I played for the International team in the Presidents Cup, and came back and played as an American in the Ryder Cup, I'd get killed, I think. [Laughs]
A few Aussies have been touted as the next big thing, and they never quite got there. Will you be the guy?
[Laughs] I don't know. I've heard that before. Whether it happens or not — it would be great to be the next big thing out of Australia. Scotty has won eight times on the PGA Tour. He's made a lot of money and had a solid career. We've got a lot of good players coming out of Australia. I'm just here to play golf and try to win as much as I can.
This article first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. The February issue is on newsstands and the tablet version is available for free for magazine subscribers on iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Nook Color and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Learn more