So who do you play for? He thinks. Hard. “That’s a really good question,” says Jason Day, smiling. It’s four days after the 27-year-old Aussie’s PGA Championship victory, his first major win following years of great expectations — and near misses — in golf’s biggest events. Day seems almost weightless, like someone freed of a tremendous burden.
“Last week I told my agent that no one was gonna beat me at the PGA because I didn’t want to come to this cover shoot without the Wanamaker Trophy. I really said that. Because it would just look so much cooler to have the trophy. So sometimes I play for the media, sometimes for the fans, sometimes for my sponsors, and sometimes it’s for my family. Really, I play for everyone.”
We’re at the Double Eagle Club, Day’s home away from home just north of his digs in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. His wife, Ellie — due in November with the couple’s second child — will arrive soon, along with Dash, their adorable 3-year-old son. Day is celebrating his sudden good fortune with Bud Martin, his longtime agent, a dozen or so magazine types, a tray of pastries, and that 27-pound silver trophy, which lives in a case that looks like it could withstand a nuclear blast. Day pries it open. “Who brought the Champagne?” someone asks. “Let’s fill it up!”
Who wouldn’t raise a glass to Jason Day? By all accounts, he’s unimpeachably genuine; nice without agenda. “He makes me think of Arnie,” says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. “Or Jeter, Staubach, Arthur Ashe — great athletes and great sportsmen, popular with the media and fellow athletes, magnanimous at every turn. That’s Jason.”
Professional sport doesn’t breed a lot of nice guys. Day is that rarity: a sweetheart with killer instincts. Before the 2015 season, he’d displayed his grit and promise of greatness with a handful of victories on the European and PGA tours. In this, his breakout year, he’s added five more trophies to that tally, and he electrified the golf world by winning four out of six starts, including the PGA at Whistling Straits. He also reached World No. 1 with his win at the BMW Championship, fulfilling his greatest childhood dream. (Note: This issue went to press before the Tour Championship was played.) Day is part of the newly anointed Big Three, alongside Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. It’s heady stuff.
“And unfortunately, I’m eating a donut in front of you,” says Day, breaking into a sheepish grin. The famously disciplined, six-days-a-week gym rat is enjoying a “cheat” (glazed) from his rigorous diet-and-exercise regimen. If anyone deserves the reward of a little sugar, it’s Day.
“People look at me funny when I say the thing that makes me proudest of Jason is that he’s a great kid; a loving, doting father to Dash; and a loving husband to Ellie,” says his longtime caddie, coach and mentor, Colin Swatton. “Because they just don’t know.”
They know some, but not everything, about where Day comes from, and what he’s gone through to find the light in a life with some dark passages. “It’s good to be friendly, because everyone has a story,” says a philosophical Day.
Well, there are stories — and then there’s Jason Day’s story.
He grew up on a farm in Beau-desert, a rural town in Queensland dotted with abandoned factories. No one in his family played golf. In the mornings he ate ramen noodles, and he and his two sisters, Kimmy and Yanna, wore secondhand clothes. Their Irish Australian father, Alvin, tended to the cattle, tinkered with the irrigation and fences. Mom Dening, a 4-foot-9-inch Filipina, worked as an upholsterer.
It’s part of Day lore that Alvin found the kid his first club at the dump: a black, Spalding 3-wood with half of the grip’s leather wrapping gone. Jason, then 3, used his new toy to smack tennis balls around the house. “This kid’s going to be a champion,” Alvin said.
He was right, but it was complicated. Jason was 6 when the family moved to Rockhampton, eight hours up the Australian coast. Alvin got a job as a supervisor on the kill floor at the local slaughterhouse. Dening worked there, too.
Day has said his father taught him to treat others as you’d have them treat you. But in a small, lowlit study at Double Eagle, in the quiet wake of a thrilling and emotional win at Whistling Straits, he digs deeper about the man.
“My dad,” Day says, “was a violent alcoholic. Really aggressive. If we cussed or even said “shut up,” we would get the belt. I remember I swore at my sister one time, and she ended up telling on me to my dad. I think I was 9 years old. And he made me sit in the mud under a mango tree while it was storming for three hours. It was dark. There were so many mosquitoes out there, so when I came in I had bites everywhere. My mom tried to get me in, but my dad wouldn’t allow it.”
Day’s father eventually quit drinking but remained a hostile presence. Having shown a knack for golf, Day played in fear of upsetting his dad.
“I remember once shooting a [poor] score, and he goes, “You’re going to get it in the parking lot,”” Day recalls. “So I get in the car. I’m scared. We drive out of the club, he stops on the side of the road. He just starts whaling on me with both hands, closed-fist punching. I was 11. I had bruises all over me. But I mean, it is what it is.”
Day’s voice is flat, with no breaks. He sounds detached as he says this, struggling, perhaps, to remain empathetic even in the realm of such violence.
“It was embarrassing for my dad,” Day says. “I knew he felt sorry, but he’d forget it straightaway. Then something else would happen, and I’d get beat up again, or my sisters would get hit.”
By this time young Jason was waging his own war with alcohol, which offered an escape from his stifling home life. Scotch-and-coke, mostly. The drinking, he says, made him angry and propelled him into fights. Once, after a night of blackout boozing, he awoke in the gutter in front of their house. At least he went home. His sister Kimmy was living on the streets. “No life goals, no nothing, no one there to tell me it was wrong,” Day says. “My mom was there for us, always with a hug, but she was just so small.”
Four months before Jason turned 12, his father died of stomach cancer—but not without leaving strict instructions for his wife.
“When my husband died, he knew we would get a little money, and he said to me, “You have to buy a station wagon. Make sure it’s a station wagon so you can fit his golf clubs,”” Dening recalls on the phone from Brisbane. The car, a white Daewoo Nubira, helped turn things around for the Day family. So did the decision—Jason says it was his mom’s, Dening says it was Jason’s—to send the budding if troubled golfer to Kooralbyn International Golf Academy, nearly 500 miles away from Rockhampton. “I had to learn how to drive,” she says.
Improbably, Day arrived relatively unbroken. He had rough edges, to be sure, and was capable of a “F— off!” Yet the furies seemed to ease with every passing hour on the range. After playing his way into the top group at Kooralbyn, Day met the director of instruction, Swatton, who would become the benevolent father he never had. Jason, like his parents, had an appetite for hard work, and when he and Swatton later moved to Hills International College, another golf academy, he based his choice of roommate (a boy who’d lost his mom to cancer) on who woke up earliest.
Day left his peers behind, authoring a gilded amateur career Down Under before turning pro at 19 and coming to America. He won on the Web.com Tour almost immediately, the youngest player ever to do so. Alas, stepping up to the PGA Tour slowed his progress. It exposed Day’s one big weakness: doubt. “I didn’t believe I was one of the best players in the world,” he says. His turbulent childhood had toughened him up but had twisted his thinking, too. The years of support he’d had—from Swatton, from his agent Martin, and from Ellie, whom he met and married a few years after arriving in the States—had both propelled and paralyzed him.
“He was hearing it as pressure to perform,” Ellie says. “We literally just figured this out.”
This epiphany seems to have made the difference for Day in 2015, along with the ongoing love from people who show him kindnesses he never knew. “Looking back on it, it was touch and go,” Day says of those days under his parents’ roof. “But Col had open arms to me. I really needed him. He shaped who I am. Bud also treats me like I’m a son, and I hold that big. I never had that type of family growing up. It’s a safe place.”
Day tied for 28th at this year’s Masters, and played through vertigo to finish T-9 at the U.S. Open. But a mysterious calm came over him at the British. It’s okay if I fail, he thought to himself. Nothing will happen to me. I’ll learn, and life will go on. He missed the playoff at St. Andrews by a stroke but kept that calm at the PGA, taking a two-shot lead into Sunday.
By the time he reached the 18th green, having parried every charge from Spieth, his playing competitor, Day was fighting back tears. Swatton tried to avoid eye contact, lest he, too, dissolve before it was over. When it was, after Day’s tap-in for a three-shot win, the emotion came pouring out. It was absolution for the kid who cried under the mango tree, who had cowered in the car after a bad round. Was he good enough now? Damn right he was.
Amid the sobering conversation at Double Eagle, Dash Day has discovered plastic dinosaurs. In a spare moment, father joins son in idle play. Things would get much more competitive at the end of the Tour season. After today’s respite, Day will soon spar with Spieth and McIlroy for the world’s top ranking and make a fierce run at the FedEx Cup. He’s also slotted to lead the International team into the Presidents Cup in Korea in early October. And there are more majors to chase in 2016.
“I always knew he had the talent,” Chamblee says. “I remember in 2009, at Reno-Tahoe, the first time I saw him. He got in on a sponsor’s exemption. He hit this drive on the 9th hole—now it’s the 18th—400 yards around a corner. Dogleg left, just a little downhill, not much. I thought, My goodness—what kind of talent is that?”
Day merely needed to harness it, mixing in what Chamblee calls “off-speed pitches”—a baseball reference to specialty shots that require more brains than brawn. “Somewhere last year, he found a softness to his shots coming into greens. It’s the final piece of the puzzle.”
How many majors might he win? It’s crowded at the top, but Chamblee predicts at least five, which would surpass Greg Norman and put Day in the company of Aussie great Peter Thomson. Says Jason’s friend and countryman Adam Scott, “He’s still in his twenties. He’s got such a great opportunity to go on and have an incredible career.”
With the future limitless, Day is sometimes reminded of the past. Alvin was a heavy smoker, and Jason says his knees buckle at the smell of cigarettes. Years ago, he and Ellie were watching “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the movie about Francis Ouimet, who grew up poor and with a tough, disapproving father. After Ouimet wins the 1913 U.S. Open, he’s swept up in the crowd and sees his teary-eyed father.
“Jason was just sobbing, and I was sobbing,” Ellie says. “Certain things bring back those memories. That stuff is hard.”
Day could have long ago decided that life owed him one. He could have done unto others as was done to him. Instead, he went the other way. He’s always had a gift for epic par saves, none better than the one from an estuary at the 2014 PGA at Valhalla, in bare feet, his pant legs rolled up. Before he could make those escapes, he had to first save himself by re-creating himself. He’s the American dream, Aussie-style.
“No matter what,” he says, smiling, seemingly weightless once more, “everything is gonna be okay.”