by Graham Otway
WHEN Jason Day made his first big impact on world golf, by finishing second in the 2011 US Open at Congressional in Maryland, his achievement only attracted attention for the wrong reasons.
The headline writers reserved most of their praise for Rory McIlroy as the young Ulsterman recorded the first of what many thought then, and still do, would be a career packed with Major titles.
Focus on the Australian tended to criticise his slow pace of play given that he had seemed to spend too many minutes agonising over the options for every shot that he thought about playing.
A month later, at Royal St George’s for the Open, when the question of dealing with slow play was raised with an R&A rules official, he replied: “Who in particular are you talking about? Jason ‘All’ Day?”
Very much to his credit, Day has since speeded up his routine and can no longer be accused of lagging behind his rivals.
And, when it comes down to a question of timing, by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday at Bay Hill, the 28-year-old appears to have got his game brilliantly in shape to pick up his second career Major title at the Masters next month.
Yet Day’s golf has been running on a stop-start programme since last September.
Then, having overtaken McIlroy and Jordan Spieth to reach No.1 in the world rankings by winning four of his last seven events on the US Tour, including the USPGA Championship, he took three months away from the game while his second child, Lucy, was born.
After returning to action on Tour with Lucy and her brother Dash in tow, Day’s play has been low key with a missed cut in the Farmers Insurance event and his best finish a modest 11th in the AT&T Pro–Am.
However, by seeking advice from his childhood hero Tiger Woods and carefully analysing all of his off-course influences, Day is gradually working out a programme that should enable him to be a big success at home and on the course.
And as if to emphasise that his family is his priority, he turned up for his winner’s press conference in the media centre at Bay Hill on Sunday with young Dash.
“The family? I mean it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” says Day. “You got to really balance it out properly if you have a family.
“Right now if you don’t, like Jordan or Rory, it is kind of really easy to be focused on golf because all you have to do is wake up in the morning and do what you need to do.
“You may have a girlfriend or fiancée, but you don’t have to worry so much about spending time with the kids.
“Me, personally? I never had a dad. Obviously everyone knows I didn’t have a dad growing up, and that parenting atmosphere wasn’t around when I was a kid. I want to make sure I’m there for Dash and Lucy.”
Day also admits that while McIlroy and Spieth, the other two members of golf’s big three, cope well with the many sponsors’ demands, press attention and social media pressure that goes with the job, in that area he has struggled since his meteoric rise up the rankings last year.
“It is a little different because for me I’m not as popular as those guys,” he says. “I understand that. I’m kind of a boring person, whereas Rory, Rickie [Fowler] are very popular.
“They are the popular kids in school. Jordan is getting that popular, starting to become a lot more popular and I’m just a nerd in the back which is fine.
“Social media? Unfortunately I’m terrible at it. I think I’ve just done 23 posts or something on Instagram. Twitter? My wife tweets for me.”
But Day does regularly text Woods who may have had a slightly ironic smile on his face on Sunday as his protégé completed a wire-to-wire victory – an achievement that is still absent from the American’s CV.
Before Day teed off in the fourth round, Woods sent him a text saying: “Just be yourself and stay in your world.” The message was much appreciated.
“It gives me so much confidence that a person like that would believe in me,” says Day. “Especially as I have idolised him ever since I was a kid and watched him in ’97 win the Masters for the first time.
“All of a sudden, I’m playing the Tour and I’m pretty close with him now.
“He’s been a big influence in my life ever since and to have his advice, to be able to go see him, practise with him and pick his brain about the numerous things that I want to try to improve my game has been a big credit to him.”
As well as having his brain in good shape, Day’s golf cannot be too far off the mark as he goes into this week’s WGC Match Play Championship in Texas with at least three rounds in the group stage to play in which he can fine-tune his swing before travelling to Augusta.
It cannot be far off the mark, even though the 18th hole at Bay Hill on Sunday saw him hit his approach into a bunker. But that was not an error.
Having driven into the right rough and faced with having to clear a vast expanse of water to go direct at the flag, Day and his caddie Colin Swatton decided that finding sand on the left side of the green was the best option.
He then produced a brilliant splash out to four feet to make the par that he needed to end the challenge of little-known Americans Kevin Chappell and Troy Merritt.
And when asked whether he felt he could be wearing his first Masters green jacket at Augusta a fortnight later, he said: “I feel really good about the game.
“The swing is coming along nicely. If there’s one thing I’d like to improve upon over the next couple of weeks it is really from tee to green, trying to hit more fairways and hit more greens because I think putting has actually been pretty good for me.
“My expectations are always high. I always expect the highest of myself and all I can say is that I’ve been busting my butt, working very, very hard.
“Not only on the golf course practising and consuming myself in the strengths and weaknesses of my game but also what I’ve been putting into my body.”
Day’s talk was in complete contrast to that of McIlroy who showed signs of his brilliance by shooting a closing 65 at Bay Hill. But, while it included two eagles and five birdies, he also finished with a double bogey.
And that had been the story of the Northern Irishman’s recent golf as in his last 11 rounds he has only shot in the 60s four times and made a similar number of 75s.
Afterwards McIlroy said: “Pretty much every week there’s been a lot of good golf in there, but I am also making a lot of mistakes.”
At the beginning of this week both players were priced at about 8-1 to win the Masters, but right now Day looks much the better bet to go all the way at Augusta.