Rory Sabbatini started it back in 2007. ‘It was a dip at the then world No 1 golfer, a winner of 12 Major titles at that stage, and like the lippy South African, still only 31 years old. ‘I want Tiger,’ Sabbatini said on his way to a world career-high ranking of No 11. ‘Everyone wants Tiger. When people play with Tiger, they stand and watch the show and don’t participate. I’m not someone to watch the show. I’m there to participate and win. I want to be paired with Tiger in the last group on Sunday, he said at that 2007 Players Championship.
‘The funny thing is, after watching him play last Sunday, I think he’s more beatable than ever. I think there’s a few fortuitous occasions out there that really changed the round for him at Wachovia. And realising that gives me even more confidence to go in and play with him on Sunday again.’ It never happened and the ‘more beatable’ reference was in response to Woods chasing down the front-running Sabbatini
Time and again, Sabbatini was reminded of his ‘prediction’ and he became a source of amusement among other touring professionals as ‘Tigermania’ sliced through the sport. Jack Nicklaus’ all-time Major record of 18 looked certain to be surpassed. Just for good measure, Woods made it Major No 13 at the 2007 PGA Championship to further silence Sabbatini.
Then ‘it’ happened again. This time it wasn’t Sabbatini, who had picked on other pros to fight with. In January 2008, a 20-year-old Australian announced his intent. ‘Everyone is working toward something, I’m trying to work toward taking that No 1 spot from Tiger.’ Day was ranked around 200 in the world at that stage.
Later that year Woods made it Major No 14, lifting the US Open for a third time.
However, Down Under they were convinced that Day – not Sabbatini or a Phil Mickelson – would be the one to charge out the pack and eventually chase Tiger through history.
Word is that Day was just 14 and playing a practice round with Greg Norman and Adam Scott at the Australian PGA when player agent Bud Martin, spotted him, and he was adamant the teenager was the most talented of the trio. Ian Davis, now Day’s manager in Australia, played with Norman in the 1970s and reckoned Day was ‘a shot better a round than Norman was at a comparable age’.
Day’s philosophy is simple. ‘If there’s a gap in a tree, I go for it,’ he once said. On the back of six victories in 13 starts he headed into The Masters as the world No 1, for a second time, mind you, having briefly scaled those heights last September after winning the BMW Championship. He might not have taken down Tiger, but he reached No 1.
‘Watching Scotty [Adam Scott] play the way he did in 2013, getting to No 1 was a big inspiration to me,’ Day said. ‘Watching him win got me working harder. Once you see an Aussie do it, you want to do it and then it’s kind of like a chain reaction.
‘Knowing the Shark [Greg Norman] spent 331 weeks up the top of the world ranking list – a very long time – and next week’s going to be my first week. It’s humbling.’
Day is built like an athlete and his rivalry with Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – all young players still in their twenties – draws favourable comparisons with that of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus of decades ago. It’s even fair to say that such was Woods’ dominance, he was never really involved in a rivalry like we’re witnessing today. Then, there was Tiger and the rest, and it’s ironic that he was his biggest opponent, infamously hitting a fire hydrant near his home in 2009 and seeing his private and public life unravel.
Now 40, Woods never did add to those 14 Majors. Going into The Masters, though, Day was back at No 1, and Louis Oosthuizen, beaten finalist in the WGC Dell Match Play, admitted, ‘Jason is definitely a few steps ahead of everyone at the moment,’ as he too looked for ways of getting the better of the Australian before Augusta.
Day has made over $30-million in prize money, married Ellie in 2009 and the couple live with a son and daughter in Ohio. Each day, the 28-year-old golfer opens the curtains and gives thanks for life’s gifts. ‘I was very poor when I was young,’ said Day, the son of Queensland meat workers, explaining away the three PlayStations and the $60 000 Cadillac Escalade he keeps at his Orlando home.
‘When I was little, just looking at pictures of cars and houses I wanted – it gives you a certain motivation, it gives you a goal.’
Given he was already compared to Greg Norman aged 14 he’d started golf a lot younger, and is said to have first hit balls at the age of six, smashing a three-wood his father had found on a rubbish dump.
Day’s life was turned upside down at the age of 12 when Alvin, his father of Irish-Australian heritage, died from stomach cancer. He found comfort in alcohol and started to get into fist-fights. His mother, Dening, of Filipino descent, saw the downward spiral and packed her son off to Koralbyn International School in Queensland, a golf academy that passed as a boarding school. ‘He was a lost soul,’ Dening would say years later. ‘There was a big difference between the haves and the have-nots. We were on the bottom of the have-nots.’
Like a young wayward Mike Tyson who found famed trainer Cus d’Amato and was hauled out of the gutter and directed towards stardom, so Day was connected with Colin Swatton, a golf coach at the school. The first day didn’t go well. Swatton had told the youngster to work on his short game. ’I told him to f*** off,’ recalled Day. ‘I was still a punk.’ He stormed off and played a few holes before the penny dropped. ‘I was out there thinking, “Man, my family is sacrificing so much for me to come here. So I went back and apologised.”’
The two have been inseparable since and Swatton is now Day’s full-time caddie and a virtual substitute father. ‘I don’t think we’ve had a cross word since,’ said Swatton. ‘From that day forward Jason outworked every other kid at the academy.’
‘He’s taken me from a kid that was getting in fights at home and getting drunk at 12, and not heading in the right direction to a Major champion winner. And there aren’t many coaches who can say that in many sports,’ Day said after his PGA Championship victory last year.
Now that Day has reached the pinnacle of a sport – although the likes of Spieth and McIlroy will no doubt let their own clubs do the talking over the next few years – he is determined to stay there. Given the rivalry the trio have going, none of them are likely to rival Norman or Woods’ longevity at the top of the rankings, but one can also argue that the standard of play is as high as any era before.
It’s worth noting here that Day’s 20 under par in his maiden Major win is a record, one shot ahead of Woods’ best return.
If there is a downer to his rise and rise it’s been injury and health issues.
The sight of him collapsing at the par-three 9th hole (his 18th) at the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay was one that sent shock and fear through millions of television viewers, as well as his fellow players and family.
He gave me a heart attack there for a minute,’ said Ellie. ‘I think it’s encouraging that he wanted to finish. He’s like, “I don’t care, I’m dizzy, but I’m just going to finish”.’ She then revealed he’d been suffering dizzy spells for the previous five years. Day was diagnosed with Benign Positional Vertigo, although the sight of him walking to the greenside bunker on that 9th hole, crumpling to the ground, hitting his head violently and laying frighteningly motionless was a terrifying moment in sport.
Meanwhile, standing on the same ninth tee was Woods, waiting to play the par three. ‘I hope he’s OK,’ Woods said. ‘He’s one of my really close friends.’
The two remain close and while Day was working his way through the WGC Dell Match Play draw, he had been in regular contact with Woods on how to hold his form and handle the pressure week in, week out. However, it may well be that the two have even more in common.
Woods has been sidelined for months with his future in doubt owing to serious back problems and Day is already having his negative experiences. Early on at the Dell Match Play he hobbled back to the players’ tent, his face a mask of pain. ‘It’s really hard to play with searing pain in both sides of your lower back,’ Day told Compleat Golfer correspondent James Corrigan. ‘I’m really struggling. My back has seized up and I need to get inside right away for treatment and see what’s wrong.’
Not that Day is universally loved, especially on Stateside where he knocked the current golden boy, Spieth, off the No 1 perch and for those who have memories of the Australian vowing to take Woods’ top spot all of eight years ago. ‘Drama Queen’ slipped from the lips of some hardened patriots as Day walked to the tee for his second-round match against Thongchai Jaidee, less than 24 hours after seeing off Graeme McDowell in agony.
There had even been talk of Day withdrawing from the event to save himself for The Masters, as he did in 2015 when he spent six weeks recovering from a damaged thumb. But no, the Aussie was determined to play through the physical barriers.
Then he crunched his tee-shot 370 yards downwind to within 11 foot of the flag on the first, calmly putted for eagle and he was on his way. In the final, against a rampant Oosthuizen, Day went one-down at the first, halved the second and then won the third and fourth. From there on it was over as a contest.
How good will Day be? No one knows. Yet, for a young man who is the ultimate rags-to-riches success story, he’s certainly been true to his word. He might not have taken down Tiger, but he’s taken down everyone of the generation he’s playing alongside.
BEST MAJORS <second spread>
Masters (2nd, 2011)
US Open (2nd 2011, 2nd 2013)
The Open (4th, 2015)
PGA Championship (1st, 2015)
END OF YEAR RANKINGS
(As at 11 April)
IN HIS BAG
Driver: TaylorMade M1 460, 10.5 Deg Adjusted to 9 Degrees
4 Wood: TaylorMade AeroBurner 3HL
Irons: TaylorMade RSi 2 (2 iron), TaylorMade RSi TP (4–PW)
Wedges: TaylorMade Tour Preferred EF (47, 52 ATV and 58 ATV)
Putter: TaylorMade Ghost Spider Itsy Bitsy Black Prototype
Ball: TaylorMade Tour Preferred X (2016)
By Gary Lemke