SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — On the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship, Jason Day finally did something that was truly Tiger-like. Two strokes behind Jimmy Walker, he nuked a 2-iron second shot from 252 yards, uphill, to within 12 feet on Baltusrol’s final par 5.
“As soon as I hit it, it felt perfect straightaway,” said Day, whose vigorous urging of the ball in flight was reminiscent of Woods at this best. When the ball rolled into the hole for his eagle 3, Day’s perfectly timed, muscle-clenching celebration also conveyed Woodsian intensity.
The talent, the power, the emotion, the sheer clutchness. It was what had been anticipated all day from the World No. 1, who started the final round a stroke back of Walker. But after the championship ended with Day still a shot short, the question was, “Why hadn’t it happened more often?”
Day is the player among all others who most resembles the Woods’ amalgamation of roots, physique, technique, power, touch and drive. Jason trades texts with Tiger, and even has the clearance to talk about their mentor-to-mentee content. Unfairly or not, the Woods comparisons are unavoidable, both a supreme compliment and a burden. Baltusrol will contribute to the latter, because based on how many times he capitalized in a similar situation, the collective belief is that a primetime Woods would have gotten it done.
A victory in the PGA would have been big for Day. It would have reestablished his dominance after his relative mediocrity in 2016’s three previous majors, as well as his giveaway of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (although his runner-up finish at Baltusrol increased his lead on World No. 2 Dustin Johnson, who missed the cut). By winning the last major of the year, Day would have locked up player-of-the-year honors. He would have proved his breakthrough major victory at last year’s PGA would not be one and done. And it would have made him more comfortable with the Woods comparisons.
As well as Jimmy Walker played, this PGA seemed like a missed opportunity for Day.
Perhaps all this is holding Day to too high a standard. Because in important ways, Day is not like Woods.
His vision of himself isn’t as expansive. After a third-round 67 on Sunday morning, with about three hours before he’d tee off in the final round, Day mused, “It would be really nice to get the second major under my belt, because I don’t want to just win one and have one through my career.” The destiny-driven Woods would never have said anything so left limiting.
Day wears the No. 1 crown more heavily than Woods ever did. “I was saying that I’ve never been more stressed at being No. 1 in the world,” Day said at his Wednesday press conference. “And then Rory came out and said it wasn’t very stressful for him. It just depends on how you take things. You know, people deal with stress differently. It’s all in what kind of person you are, and for me, I feel like I get stressed out a little more. I think it’s a good thing, because it makes me want to work harder.”
Then on Sunday night, Day candidly related the internal turmoil he had felt during the final round, a sharp contrast with the cool focus that Woods would say was his predominant state.
“It’s tough, it’s grueling,” Day said. “It’s more mentally painful to go through days like this, just because you get to a certain point and that barrier, you’ll be sitting there and going, ‘I just don’t know if I can push on anymore.’ ”
As much as he talks about things like “facing the fear” and “getting comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Day has a tendency to lower expectations, whereas Woods always emphasized that if he showed up, it was to win.
“With the limited practice and limited prep that I’ve had this week, I’m not coming into the week expecting a lot,” Day said on Wednesday, reporting he had taken Monday and Tuesday off because of a cold he caught from his son that had him “running on E right now.”
Catching himself, Day quickly reversed field with something psychologically correct thing—“I mean, obviously I’m expecting to win”—but he had already strayed far from Big Cat territory. Indeed, on Friday, after a five-under 65 increased his confidence, Day let his cat out of the bag. “I think being able to kind of voice where I’m at mentally and physically with my health takes a lot of expectations off my shoulders,” he said.
Finally, Day cares a lot more about what people think than Woods did.
“Sometimes it’s hard to say no,” he said. “It’s really trying to stay focused and be nice and do all the things you can do for media, fans and people. But also making sure that you’re kind of selfish in a way to understand that, you know, I did X to get to No. 1 in the world, I did X to win these tournaments. I need to keep doing that.”
Of course, though Woods’ instruction book inspired Day to become a golfer, Day has never claimed to copy Woods’ personality. And while the Australian may exhibit many more outward sensitivities than Tiger, he’s demonstrated plenty of grit. At the beginning of that second-round 65, Day was two over through seven holes after a double bogey. Angry, he motivated himself with an internal tirade.
“A few swear words inside my head, like ‘what are you doing?’ ” Day recounted. “Just really I played that hole so bad that it was really frustrating for me. ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you giving shots to the field when you don't need to do that?’ ”
He then went on to birdie seven of the next eight holes.
Still, perhaps where Day is most different than Woods is in not having demonstrated the 14-time major winner’s consistent ability to close. In the fourth round at Baltusrol, Day started shakily, making bogeys on two of the first three after mishit drives. He didn’t make another bogey the rest of the way, but those two blemishes spelled the difference, as his resulting three birdies and an eagle weren’t enough.
“I don’t feel like I hit it close enough to really get any sort of chances in the middle part of the back side,” Day said. “Yeah, a little disappointed, but you know what, at the end of the day, I came in here with not the greatest preparation. I’m very, very happy with how I played all week.”
Woods would not have been very, very happy. Not with second place.
Day now has four runner-up finishes in majors, against the one victory. He’s 28, his future still incredibly bright. He is a better putter and wedge player than Johnson or Rory McIlroy, and more powerful than Jordan Spieth. He knows he’ll take something from Baltusrol.
“I just want to win, that’s all,” he said. “Winning takes care of everything.”
Now that’s Tiger-like.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Aug. 1, 2016 issue of Golf World.