THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — He hits it a mile, is wise beyond his years and is a strong contender for golf's new boy king. People have been saying these things for years about Jason Day, especially after he finished second at the 2011 Masters and U.S. Open at the tender age of 23. Amid the excitement over the even younger super-kid Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, it seemed wise to remember that Aussie Day handily beat McIlroy at Augusta before losing to him at Congressional.
That seems like a long time ago.
Day, who fired a 1-under-par 71 at the unofficial, 18-man World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club on Thursday, was calm and introspective as he spoke about his lost 2012, which thankfully is almost over. He was injured — twice — bowed out of the Masters after a first-round 76, played just 17 events and all but disappeared.
"I just need to get my priorities back toward golf a little bit," said Day, who along with wife Ellie spent much of his energy this year on their 5-month-old son, Dash. "I was a little distracted off the course, and my head wasn't quite there. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and it stresses me out a lot. I have to just sit back and say, I've accomplished a lot of things and I'm still only 25. Golf is a long career." Although he would never say it in so many words, part of why 2012 was such a buzz-kill for Day is that it was such a joy ride for McIlroy, who won five tournaments, including the PGA, and the U.S. and European money titles.
"I think the media helps put that pressure on you," Day said. "You see some of those young guys out there, they're always writing about the next best thing, say Rory McIlroy, for instance. You sit there and go, man, I used to play junior golf against him, amateur golf and professional golf. I feel I'm just as good as him."
In the coming weeks, Day, his agent, Bud Martin, and his caddie and coach, Col Swatton, will convene in Day's hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to talk about their plans for 2013, and what went wrong in 2012. There's much to talk about.
First, just before this season began, Day's back went out. He's always had back issues, and this flare-up happened not when he was lifting weights or beating balls but when he was simply bending over. "For some reason it just locked up," he said. "I was in this locked-up position for two or three weeks, trying to work on it."
Day muddled along at the start of the season, his best results a pair of T20s in Florida. His back was getting better when, a week before the Masters, he went out for a short training run on an asphalt track in Columbus. As Day remembers it, he didn't step in a hole or do anything extraordinarily awkward, but somehow he wound up badly injuring his left foot. It was a killer blow, the mishap coming so close to the year's first major at Augusta, where Day and countryman Adam Scott had come so close in 2011 and where an Australian has famously never won. Still, determined to play, Day winced his way through a weak 76 before withdrawing.
He took the next month off, but when he returned seemed to have lost most if not all of his mojo. He missed the cut at the Players, and at his new hometown tournament, the Memorial at Muirfield Village. The only bright spot: a T9 at the Byron Nelson, the tournament he won in 2010 — his first and still his only Tour win. Summer brought more of the same. Day barely made the cut at the U.S. Open at Olympic (T59), skipped the British for the birth of his son, and shot a second-round 80 to miss the cut at the PGA Championship at Kiawah. Not until early October, when he shot weekend rounds of 64-65 to finish fourth at the J.T. Shriners in Las Vegas, did he start looking like himself again.
"We'll get together, probably next week, and talk about what courses I want to play next year, what happened this year, what was the difference between this year and last year," said Day, who was pleased with his five birdies Thursday. "It's a fine line between missing the cut and winning a tournament. Unfortunately it was a down year for me, but I'm still pretty young, and I'm focused on being the best dad I can possibly be to Dash. I'm still really excited to get to 2013."