HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — The one thing I like most of all about Jason Day is that he can’t wait to see just how good he can get at this game called golf.
He is pretty good, obviously. He is ranked No. 1 in the world and if you think about it, Day could have already pulled away from the world with a little better luck.
You know about his PGA Championship win and his record-setting 20-under-par score. You recall how he continued his spree by winning two of the FedEx Cup events, the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship, and how he picked up in March where he left off with a victory at Bay Hill and then the Dell World Match Play.
Think about this. Suppose he doesn’t suffer a vertigo attack at Chambers Bay? Maybe he brings home that U.S. Open, not Jordan Spieth. Suppose he makes that birdie putt on the final green at St. Andrews and gets in a four-man playoff? Maybe he snags the claret jug, not Zach Johnson. Last week in Augusta, he would have been going for, what, the JasonSlam?
That’s just what-if stuff. Old sports saying: What could have happened did.
So while we were slathering last year over Spieth, who kicked away the U.S. Open by making an unthinkable double bogey on a par 3 late in the round (sound familiar?) but won anyway when Dustin Johnson couldn’t two-putt the final green, and who fumbled the British Open by following a gigantic 16th-hole birdie putt with two awful drives and a bogey-par finish when he needed two pars, maybe we should have been doting on Day.
It should make you realize that while we’ve got the supposed Big Three to dote on, Day looks more and more like the one who’s going to break out of that pack. Or maybe already has and we just aren’t paying attention.
We’ll play attention this week. Day is the only one of the top 13 players in the world who will tee it up at Harbour Town. This is supposed to be golf’s version of spring break, a sort of working man’s vacation a few days after the windswept ordeal that was the Masters Tournament.
Day is here to win, he hopes. He’s a big-picture guy with a big goal. He isn’t satisfied with winning, he wants to be like his texting pal, Tiger Woods, and be in a class by himself. In Ron Burgundy terms, he wants to be kind of a big deal… if he already isn’t.
There’s no conceit in this. Day has the talent to do it. We’re just now realizing that his short game and his putting look equal to Spieth. His ballstriking is better. He has so much upside, it hurts to think about it. So while this week maybe isn’t the tournament featuring the course best-suited to him—narrow-ish fairways, tiny greens—it tells you about his desire that he is playing at all. He likes being No. 1, he wants to make sure he earns it and keeps it. It’s good to be king.
“It’s huge being number one in the world, I’m just trying to get better each and every week,” he said. “The biggest thing is just trying to extend that gap between one and two.
“If you want to become a dominant player, you have to be consistent but you also have to consistently win. After showing that over the last half of last year and early this year, I want to make sure I keep up that level of play.”
The telling part is, “if you want to become a dominant player,” …Who else in golf has that as a goal? Rory, maybe? He’s got four major championships, that’s not unrealistic. Spieth? He chased the Grand Slam last year and if his ballstriking improves, it might be possible. Spieth is focused on winning now. Day is chasing a dream that’s bigger than being a winner, he wants to be The Dominant Golfer. He wants to be big. Aim high, there’s nothing wrong with that.
What will it take to dominate? Everything. That’s why Day does fitness every day. Wednesday, he got up at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. pro-am tee time. He had breakfast, then did his normal warmup routine. In the afternoon, he sees a therapist for soft-tissue work.
“It’s a daily routine now, it’s part of my life and I have to keep it that way because if I don’t, you’ll see me having more withdrawals,” Day said. “If something gets tight in my body—my back, my thoracic, my hips or even my hamstring then other things start tightening up and that’s when my back can go out.”
Day is like a baseball pitcher who throws a 98-mph fastball and because of that stress, has to be more careful about his arm. Day swings hard, as hard as anyone in the game, and hits it as far as anyone in the game. He’s had back issues before, he’ll have them again. But he’s putting in the work to minimize that. Day is careful about his nutrition, too. He wants a long career. That’s what you have to do to dominate.
He is close to his goal. Day is 28. He has already had seven top-five finishes in the majors. He was 10th at the Masters last week but he’s finished second and third there. He’s got a pair of seconds, a fourth and a ninth at the U.S. Open. He was fourth at the Open last year, and he’s finished eighth and 10th at the PGA in addition to his victory.
When David Duval was still trying to break through for his first win in the ‘90s, he noted that all his close calls were seen as detriments to his resume because he hadn’t won yet. As soon as he broke through and won, Duval said, everyone will be saying, Yeah, and he’s had all these close calls, too. They would become positives.
Duval was right then and the same applies to Day.
He is No. 1 by a small margin over Spieth, and a reasonable margin over McIlroy.
This week, he is the best player in the field. If that’s not a reason to watch, I don’t know what is.