by Peter Higgs
This was Redemption Day. Less than a week after leaving a birdie putt short on the final green at St Andrews to miss out on a play-off for The Open Championship by a single shot and walk away from the Old Course on the verge of tears, Jason Day won the RBC Canadian Open in thrilling style.
The 27-year-old Australian birdied the final three holes to beat a fast-charging Bubba Watson by one shot and local favourite David Hearn by two for his fourth victory on the PGA Tour. After holing a 22-foot putt on the 72nd green that clinched the $1.044m first prize, Day said: “This must feel like what Tiger did for so many times – and it feels good.
“It was great to feel like a Canadian for a week. The last two weeks have been a grind for me but it’s all worth it. Right now, I’m so proud to be the Canadian Open champion.”
What a comeback it was by the big-hitting Aussie who has all the tools to be one of the stars of the game if only he can turn his considerable talent into more victories.
This was a crucial step along the road even if it left thousands of Canadians frustrated and waiting another year for a champion of their own.
They had turned up in their droves on Sunday at the Glen Abbey course, in Oakville, Ontario, hoping to acclaim the first Canadian winner of their national title for 61 years.
Hearn, a 36-year-old from nearby Brantford, had overhauled first-round leader Emiliano Grillo of Argentina (64) and second-round leader Chad Campbell (including a best-of-the-week 63) with scores of 69, 64 and 68 to lead by two going into the final round.
The last Canadian to win had been Pat Fletcher in 1954 and the last 54-hole leader was Mike Weir in 2004. But the lefty winner of the 2003 Masters had been unable to close the deal.
Hearn, cheered on to every tee and every green, gave his compatriots reason to believe by opening up with two birdies to extend his lead at the top. But a missed five-foot par putt at the 437-yard third stalled his momentum and was an indication of the tough day that lay ahead.
To be fair to Hearn, who lost in a play-off to Danny Lee at the Greenbrier Classic only two weeks earlier, he made a gutsy challenge and was in contention right up to the 72nd hole. But he left a few crucial putts inches short with his long broomhandle putter and couldn’t match the brilliance of Day and Watson down the stretch.
Day, with three birdies, had caught him up by the sixth hole only for the World No.9 to miss the green at the 8th and 9th to drop shots and hand the lead back to Hearn, who was one ahead at the turn. Watson was struggling at this stage, two over for his first ten holes and in danger of dropping into the pack.
A vital moment in Day’s day came at the 202-yard 12th where he holed a 12-foot putt for par. Hearn, in the group behind, dropped a shot on the par-three and that meant three players were tied for the lead coming into the home straight – Hearn, Day and Jim Furyk,who had quietly crept into the picture.
Day drove into the bunker on the 558-yard par-five 13th and lost the chance to go for his birdie but Hearn holed from off the green at the same hole moments later to go back in front.
But the excitement was just beginning. Day, whose chipping had been below its normal standard and had cost him a couple of shots, suddenly found his game to produce a storming finish.
He was on the green at the 516-yard par five 16th in two and two-putted from 50 feet for birdie to draw level at the top. And his play on the 436-yard 17th was something to behold.
A mighty drive of 386 yards (yes, 386 yards!) just short of the greenside bunkers left him a 75-yard pitch, which he duly delivered to ten feet. He duly sank the putt for birdie to take the lead on his own for the first time.
Knowing that a birdie at the 524-yard par-five 18th would probably secure the title, Day appeared to have opened the door to his rivals when he drove into a fairway bunker, could not reach the green in two and had to lay up.
His wedge approach finished 22 feet above the hole leaving him a speedy, left-to- right downhill putt – which he powered into the cup to launch a fist-pumping, roaring celebration of delight before being embraced by his pregnant wife Ellie and son Dash behind the green.
But the drama was not finished. Not quite. While Furyk had failed to birdie either of the closing par-fives and faded into fourth place, and Hearn could only tread water as he parred the final four holes, Watson was playing like a man possessed. Birdies at 13,15, 16 and 17 meant that the World No.3 still had a chance of victory.
He and Hearn were standing in the 18th fairway, after Day sank what was to be his winning putt, each knowing that they needed to make an eagle to force a play-off. Hearn, who has never won on the PGA Tour, put his approach into the greenside bunker and finished up making par for a round of 72.
Watson then struck an eight-iron from 190 yards that homed in on the flag only to bounce through the back of the green as he bit his club in frustration. Bubba tried to bump a 7-wood through the rough which trickled past the left edge of the hole. The man from Bagdad, Florida, had birdied the final four holes and still come up a shot shy.
Yet both men in the final group, Hearn and Watson, had reason to look back on the day with fond memories.
“I was really proud of the way I played and really proud to be a Canadian,” said Hearn, ranked 128th in the world at the start of the tournament.
“It was pretty special with all the fans and the support I had from the beginning to the finish. I will always remember that feeling I had today and the outpouring of support from everybody. I gave it my all but I didn’t have my best game.
“I felt confident and I was putting well all week. I hit really, really good putts that didn’t go in (in the last round). Winning a tournament on the PGA Tour is no easy task. Canadians want to see it and we want to do it so bad.”
Watson’s rally had confounded those critics who accuse him of lacking heart when things go wrong. “I never had any swing problems, it was all mental mistakes,” he explained. “So I knew I wasn’t far off. I knew if I could get hot and make a few putts… and that’s what I did coming down the stretch. I hit a couple of good shots, a couple of good putts and lost by one. I guess one is enough. I was just hoping that the other guy, named Jason Day, wasn’t making any putts.”
The two-time Masters champion, whose wife Angie is Canadian-born, had sympathy for Hearn. “I felt for David, he was playing so well” said Watson.
“He started off hot and he putts unbelievably. There were so many putts he hit that should have fallen in. I don’t know how they stayed out. For him and for Canada it would have been a great story. It would have been his first win and especially in Canada – how amazing would that have been?”
Instead, the glory went to Day, whose 500 FedExCup points took him to fourth in the table. “To be able to put yourself in contention so many times, especially in Major events, and just fall short, even going back to last week (The Open) and leaving that putt short and not getting into the play-off was really disappointing,” he said. “So when I actually had the same putt on the 72nd hole some things were going through my mind. Make sure you get it to the hole.
“Fortunately for me it was quick enough where I just needed to get it on line. If I got it on line it was perfect. I just knew that from about six feet out it was going to come back and go into the hole.
“I needed that putt on 18 with Bubba and David chasing and that’s what made it so exciting. It was a really fun finish.
“My lifelong goal is to get to No.1 in the world and I can’t do that without wins and big wins in Major championships. All these hiccups along the road, hopefully later on down the road it will become easier for me to finish it off the way I need to. This was a good indication of where my game is with regard to that.
“I fell short a little bit last week but I knew my game was ready. To be able to do that on the 72nd hole was tremendous.
“I want to show people that I’m not going to quit and I’m not going to stop fighting until it’s over. And that’s probably the way I’m going to play for the rest of my life.”
Maybe for Canada it was the wrong result, but for golf this was good news. The champion’s aggressive, big-hitting style can make him one of the best and that can only be exciting for the sport. Truly, what a difference a Day makes.
*This article was originally published in The Golf Paper on 29 July 2015.