ORLANDO, Fla.—All right, the Golden State Warriors don’t win every game, the Super Bowl champion hasn’t gone undefeated in more than four decades (Hail Dolphins!) and even Donald Trump doesn’t win every primary election.
So our expectations of golf’s New Big Three were probably out of line for 2016. Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy were the Big Three of 2015, but this is a new year and it has been slow the way Marco Rubio was slow to catch on that nobody was voting for him.
Things are picking up all of a sudden, just in time for the azaleas to bloom next month in Augusta. Picking up? No, this is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. Day, a 28-year-old Australian and the reigning PGA champion, is tearing up Arnold Palmer’s beloved Bay Hill Club through two days of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and looking like, pardon the sacrilege, a young Arnold Palmer in the way he’s doing it. Par 5s? What par 5s? Day is 8-under on those eight holes in two rounds. On Thursday, he had three birdies and an eagle. Friday, he stitched three more birdies onto his total.
All Day has done is shoot 66-65 at Bay Hill and sure, the wind has laid down for two days, a rare occasion in March, but those are damned fine scores.
Day was delayed in speaking with the media after the round because he was randomly selected for post-round drug testing. “I’m not surprised they’re testing me,” Day joked before his press conference, a humorous reference to his blazing start.
“It was a great day, I almost felt like I couldn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I’m driving it great and I putted fantastic. I’m very, very pleased.”
There is a reason the media tagged these new guys with the Big Three label and you’re seeing it at Bay Hill. When they’re on, they’re on a different level. Day sits at 13-under, five shots clear of the field.
“Thirteen or 14 under is usually what wins around here and I’m there already,” he said. “I’ve just gotta be patient on the weekend.”
This week has the feel of last August when Day was hotter than a Death Valley patio set. You know how that worked out. He narrowly missed out on joining the British Open playoff at St. Andrews and then won four of his next six events, including the PGA Championship and the BMW Championship.
This is why Day, Spieth and McIlroy were dubbed the Big Three, you know. When they’re on, they’re really, really on. They set records.
Spieth tied the all-time scoring record when he won last year’s Masters at 18 under par and was the only man to briefly reach 19-under in Masters history.
Day blistered Whistling Straits with Happy Gilmore-like 380-yard drives and won the PGA Championship with a record winning score of 268, 20 under par—he temporarily had it to 21 under.
McIlroy has had some Tiger-esque major moments. He set the U.S. Open scoring mark (held by Tiger himself) when he won at Congressional in 2011 with 16-under. Then he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island by a record eight strokes. Tiger won a U.S. Open by 15 strokes and a Masters by 12. Rory won an Open and a PGA by eight. That’s crazy. And at that Congressional Open, by the way, the guy in second place eight strokes behind him was… Jason Day.
Yes, that New Big Three moniker might be unfair and unrealistic. The original Big Three – Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player – were not only great champions but larger than life personalities. It’s debatable whether our new trio will ever match the Big Three’s accomplishments, and it seems almost impossible that they would ever become global first-name icons like Jack, Arnie and Gary. But a week like Day is having so far at Bay Hill is a reminder that yes, these guys have a gear that the others don’t. Day and McIlroy and Spieth have already shown us greatness. Maybe that Big Three label isn’t so far off-base.
“I’m just trying to get a win under my belt,” Day said. “I feel I’m trending toward a really good Augusta.”
The way Day rode that streak out last fall means that if it’s happening again, he’s going to be tough to beat at Bay Hill or Augusta or Pirates Cove Mini-Golf unless somebody can figure out a way to play defense.
Maybe threatening weather can slow him down. Saturday’s forecast is iffy enough that the PGA Tour will send the players off the first and tenth teens in threesomes starting at 7:30 a.m. in an effort to beat the approaching storm. That could mean wind, rain and tougher conditions. After Friday’s impressive performance, it doesn’t seem like Day can be slowed. Maybe not in Augusta, maybe not anywhere.
“The ultimate goal is to get back to No. 1, I guess,” he said. “I hate playing bad golf, I really do. I enjoy the process of working to get better.”
He didn’t feel the weight of that lofty ranking when he held it last year because he kept it for only a short time and right after he gained it, he stopped playing and enjoyed his off-season.
“I’d love to go on a Rory McIlroy run (as No. 1) over a number of years,” Day joked, “instead of only four weeks.”
It could happen. It might happen. This weekend at Bay Hill, even though Adam Scott and some others will have something to say about it, could be the start of something truly big.