More than golfOctober 1, 2019

During his mother's fight against lung cancer, Jason Day's perspectives on life, and golf, have changed

Jason Day
Harry How

As Jason Day prepares for the remainder of the 2019 golf season, the goal is clear: Do enough in his next few starts to convince Ernie Els that he’s deserving of a captain’s pick for the International Presidents Cup team competing in December at Royal Melbourne. That means stepping up when he makes appearances at The Challenge: Japan Skins, the Zozo Championship and the WGC-HSBC Champions before Els finalizes his picks in early November.

Thankfully, Day, whose 2018-’19 PGA Tour season ended early at the BMW Championship in August, can do all this while focusing primarily on what he needs to accomplish on the course. That hasn’t always been the case for the 31-year-old Australian and former World No. 1.

In early 2017, Day’s mother, Dening, was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. In the ensuing two years, Day has had to balance his career and family life with his wife, Ellie, and their three children, while helping his mother cope with a life-threatening condition that appears to be in check.

When doctors in Australia first examined Dening, they gave her 12 months to live. The news came in the wake of some of Day’s biggest professional successes. In 2015, he had won his first career major at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and reached the top of the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time, a position he would hold for much of the next season with more victories piling up in 2016.

Upon learning of his mother’s condition, Day flew her to his home in Ohio to be closer to her and allow her to receive treatment in the United States. Not surprisingly, the disconcerting news caused Day’s play to suffer in his first few starts of the year. The most difficult time appeared to be March 2017, when Day withdrew from the WGC-Dell Match Play, where he was the defending champion, after just six holes in his opening-round match. He spoke through tears in a press conference, explaining that with Dening scheduled to undergo surgery later that week, golf was the last thing on his mind.

“It’s been really hard to play golf lately, this year,” Day said at the time. “I just need some time away with her.”

David Cannon/Getty Images

Day talks to the media at the 2017 WGC-Dell Match Play after withdrawing from the tournament due to his mother's pending surgery for lung cancer.

Two days later, doctors were able to remove a 3½-centimeter cancerous mass from Dening’s left lung. The next month, she found out she did not need to undergo chemotherapy.

During that time, Dening insisted that Jason continue to play golf. But his mind was elsewhere, and he continued to have ups and downs on the course.

At the 2017 Masters, Day said he felt unprepared, having practiced little in the weeks leading up to the year’s first major. He finished in a tie for 22nd. A month later, he tied for 60th at the Players, where he again spoke of the difficulty of dealing with his mom’s illness and the toll it had taken on them because of their close bond.

Day finished with five top-10s in 2017, but he ended the year with zero victories and slipped outside the top 10 in the world.

“She’s the reason I’m the player I am today, through her strict rule over the house, but also her work ethic is unbelievable,” Day said in March 2018. “And it kind of transferred through to me. And with her sacrifices that she made, I needed to make sure that everything was OK. And for her to be healthy and happy, I mean, I’m pleased.”

The fight has remained ongoing. Though Day didn’t talk about it during the 2018 season, doctors found three spots on Dening’s lung last year and prescribed oral chemotherapy, which can stop the cancer from growing and spreading.

Today, Dening is doing well back in Australia, but the scare was more than enough to compel Day not just to acquire a greater understanding of the disease but to get involved in fighting it. Earlier this year, Day took a lead role in a campaign encouraging patients to ask their doctors about biomarker testing (sometimes referred to as molecular testing or mutation testing), which can help find the right treatment options for an individual.

“Her lung-cancer diagnosis was devastating, because you never think it will happen to you or your family,” Day said. “I wanted her to have the best possible care, and biomarker testing helped us understand our treatment options.

“The test results can take some time, but having them really gives you a full picture of what you’re dealing with.”

As for Day’s golf, he bounced back with two wins and four other top 10s in 2018 and had five more top-10s in 2019, but finished ninth on the points list to qualify for his fifth International Presidents Cup team, with the top eight earning automatic spots. And so there is work to be done this fall.

Still, his mom’s battle with lung cancer left him a new appreciation for life outside the game and the importance of staying on top of health-related matters.

“My mom having cancer, I definitely need to keep improving myself as a person and trying to get better,” Day said. “The distractions that have happened with my mother the last couple of times, that’s something that I’m going to prioritize as No. 1—more than golf—to make sure things are taken care of.”