The knock on Jason Day has been that he’s a non-winner.
Sure, he’s a great competitor and a regular contender – but a deal clincher? Nup, not really.
In his 136 PGA Tour starts, he’s made 102 cuts which is a sterling, money-making strike rate. On top of that, the Queenslander has 58 times finished in the top 25 – at more than 40% of his starts. Again, a knockout figure.
He’s had 30 top-10 finishes and eight times been in the top three. Yet his only success on the main tour in America so far has been the Byron Nelson Classic in mid-2010 – more than three years ago.
Of course, he’s twice finished runner-up in the US Open and notched a second- and third-placing in the US Masters as well, so he’s proved to be a heck of a competitor who doesn’t shrink from the spotlight glare on the biggest of stages.
It’s just he struggles to get the job done when in contention, as he so often is.
Even at Augusta in April this year, Day hit the front on the back nine of the final day then contrived to take bogeys at the 16th and 17th – the latter from the middle of the fairway – to hand the initiative back to Scott and Angel Cabrera. That summed up the Day conundrum.
So when Thomas Bjorn, and for a while Adam Scott, challenged Day in the final round of the World Cup today, many thought the test would prove too much for the perennial bridesmaid. That he’d find a way to lose.
And to think the part-Filipino, part-Australian had come into the tournament on the back of the horrific news that eight members of his extended family, including his grandmother, had died in Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines last week. If ever he had reason to feel a little less mentally robust than usual, it was this week, after receiving that bombshell.
But, in a wonderful result that will hopefully rid him of the nearly-man tag, Day withstood everything his challengers, and Royal Melbourne, could throw at him by playing beautifully over the closing five holes to clinch victory by two shots.
In the process, he and Scott streeted the field in the teams event, scoring an aggregate total of 17 under par, 10 strokes clear ad of the American pair of Matt Kuchar and Kevin Streelman, with Denmark and Japan a further two shots back in third place. It is Australia’s first win in the biennial teams event since 1989 when Peter Fowler and Wayne Grady triumphed in Spain.
Yet, in looking back at his final round, Day will understand how he almost found a way to butcher his chance at victory. How the old tremors, and mental demons, paid him a visit and nearly caused him to topple out of the lead.
Standing on the 10th tee at 11 under par, he led by four strokes from Scott and his playing partner Bjorn. Sensible, prudent play would surely have seen him coast home.
But he then hit his drive through the corner of the par four, into long rough. Instead of chipping out conservatively and giving himself an outside chance of making an up-and-down par, Day for some inexplicable reason chose to try for an ambitious recovery shot which only ended up deeper in the ti-tree. A double-bogey six resulted.
So his solid grip on the individual championship had suddenly become tenuous.
And when he missed a five-metre putt for birdie on the short par-four 11th – and watched as Bjorn, a 42-year-old Dane who’d been in this position many times, holed his tiddler for birdie – suddenly his margin had been reduced to one.
Yet, rather than fade away, Day gritted his teeth and showed renewed resolve. He made a great up-and-down birdie from a green-side bunker on the par-five 15th, holed a 2.5-metre par putt on the 16th – after a brilliant 40-metre bunker shot from way right of the green – and then canned another two-metre putt for par on 17. Here, at last, was Day the Dominator on display.
And when he drove long and straight at the last, and lanced a seven-iron to six metres above the hole, he had established his credentials as a winner in the most emphatic manner possible. His steadiness finally broke Bjorn’s will, the Dane making bogey from the right trap to finish at eight under, two shots adrift of the Australian.
Day won the first prize cheque of $1.2 million but it was the manner of his victory – standing firm under the fiercest pressure, on a golf course that delights in preying on the vulnerable – that will feel almost as valuable.
Day’s embrace of long-time mentor and coach, Col Swatton, on the 18th green was long and heartfelt. For this was a significant result and they both knew it. And in time, it might well be seen as the watershed moment in a very gifted young player’s career.