PGA Championship 2020: Jason Day reflects on his lone major five years ago, and whether his game can reach that level again
In surveying dozens of PGA Tour pros a few years ago about whose ‘A game’ was best when they had it, Jason Day came up as one of the two most frequently mentioned (Rory McIlroy was the other).
There was good reason: From the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2016, there was arguably no one better. Day won eight times, including a PGA Championship and the Players. He reached No. 1 in the world—a position he’d hold for a total of 51 weeks. He had a short game his peers drooled over, was one of the best iron players on the planet and could drive it as far as just about anyone in the sport.
But five years after his seminal victory at Whistling Straits, where he shot 68-67-66-67 to dust his nearest competitor—a red-hot, halfway-to-the-Grand-Slam-that-year Jordan Spieth—by three, Day remains stuck on that single major. And it has been more than two full years since he has won anywhere, having last done so in May 2018 at the Wells Fargo Championship.
As Day enters the first major of 2020, however, the 32-year-old carries some strong momentum. In his past three starts Day hasn’t finished worse than seventh, which included a tie for sixth against an elite field at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
It marked the first time that Day has recorded three straight top-10 finishes since 2016. He also did so without a swing coach for the first time in his career after parting ways with the only coach he’s ever had, Colin Swatton, a month ago.
That Day saw improvement in his results immediately was hardly an indictment on Swatton—fresh perspective can spark success—as much as it was a sign that Day feels comfortable with where his game is headed. Much the way Tiger Woods parted with his last coach (Chris Como) three years ago in an effort to own his swing, Day is trying to do the same.
“I haven't really moved away too much from what Col has done,” Day said. “I'm still doing the same things that he's really kind of teaching me, but I'm just really trying to focus more on the feel side of things, what I like to feel out there.
“Sometimes when I had a coach, I know that it’s not that way, but me thinking that this way, sometimes I would try something, but I knew that he probably wouldn’t want me to try it so I wouldn't end up doing it. This has obviously given me a little bit of freedom to go out and experiment a little bit on what kind of windows I like to see, trajectory, the spin and what kind of feel I like going through impact.”
Though the two had formed a successful partnership for two decades, with Swatton first working with Day when he was just 12 years old, the Aussie’s play had begun to recently slip. In addition to not winning in more than two years, he fell outside the top 50 in the world rankings earlier this season for the first time in 10 years. So he decided shortly before last month’s Workday Charity Open that he would go without the services of a coach.
So far, so good.
Sean M. Haffey
But now comes easily his stiffest test to date since splitting with Swatton. And it comes on a course that figures to be a brute, with narrow fairways, lush rough and cool temperatures.
It’s also not the first change Day has made in recent years.
The first significant one came in the fall of 2017, when he replaced Swatton on the bag after being the only caddie he’d ever had on the PGA Tour. Day then alternated between Luke Reardon and fellow pro David Lutterus until 2019 when he made a splash by wooing Steve Williams out of retirement. Their first event together was the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but the partnership lasted just six starts, with the two splitting over a “disconnect.” Day eventually returned to Reardon for this season.
There have been other elements that have affected his play as well.
A chronically bad back the last few years has forced Day to withdraw from a handful of events during that span, including earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He underwent a non-invasive procedure on his back but returned to action the following week at the Players Championship, where he played one round before the season was eventually put on hold for three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And off the course, in early 2017, Day’s mother was diagnosed with a mass in her left lung and given just months to live. He brought her from Australia to Ohio, surgeons were able to remove the tumor in March of that year and her prognosis improved, but the matter had understandably taken a toll. After three victories in 2016, he didn’t win again until 2018.
Not that there haven’t been a few chances to add to the major total along the way.
In his decade on tour, Day has finished in the top 10 of a major championship 14 times, with eight of those impressively in the top five. That included at last year’s Masters, where he was tied for the lead after the first two rounds but made a sloppy double bogey at the par-5 15th on his way to a 73 in the third round and eventually finished just two strokes back of Tiger Woods. In 2013 at Augusta National, Day had the lead with three holes to go but bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 and finished two back of fellow Aussie Adam Scott.
At the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, Day had a share of the lead entering the final round but shot 74 to finish five back of Spieth. A year later, at the PGA at Baltusrol, he entered the final round two off the lead, cut the deficit to one with an eagle on the 72nd hole but finished a stroke behind winner Jimmy Walker.
“I am surprised [he has just one major],” Swatton said of his now former boss. “He realistically could have a U.S. Open, he could have a PGA and a green jacket could be sitting in the closet. At the same time, it’s a major championship. It's difficult. You have to have everything happen.”
Nearly five years to the day removed from his lone major victory, the anniversary provides for a moment of reflection.
“I knew I had great form going into that week,” Day said of what he remembers most about his lone major victory. “That week, I felt I could hit my driver hard as I could and no matter what I did it would go straight. I was putting well. I had confidence off the tee and on the greens.”
He seems to be moving in that direction again.
“Some guys make it look easier than others,” says Day. “I do have certain goals I still want to achieve, and hopefully I can by the end of my time.”
“It’s hard to say if over- or underachieved in my career right now. I’ve achieved certain goals well beyond what I thought I was going to do. But sometimes you have to take a step back and revaluate and set new goals.”
Now is as good a time as any.