When Jason Day was gowing up, his baths were filled with a kettle, his mum ‘mowed’ the lawn with scissors, and his first golf club came from the local dump. It was a hard upbringing, yet these weren’t even the biggest obstacles golf’s new shining star faced on his journey to the top of the sport.
The 27-year-old’s father, Alvin, was a disciplinarian Australian who scrapped and scraped his way through life and escaped into the drink, and his ambitious Filipino mother, Dening, was, to put it bluntly, a mail order bride. His parents may not have been flush with cash, but they did whatever it took to get food on the table for Jason and his two sisters. This meant not being around much as they worked long hours to make ends meet at the local meat plant. “I grew up in a poor family, we went through some tough times, but so does the majority of the world,” Day says modestly. “My eldest sister basically raised us because mum and dad were gone at 4:30am and back at 7 at night.”
When Alvin wasn’t working on the killing floor at the abattoir in Beaudesert, a small country town west of the Gold Coast in Queensland, he was trolling the local rubbish tip looking for anything he could repurpose or pawn. Fancy toys were not on the menu at the Day household but when Alvin found an old, partially rotting 3-wood and brought it home, three-yearold Jason was immediately smitten. The brash toddler thrashed away with that thing for hours, belting anything he could send into mini orbit. It was the building blocks of a love for the game, and also an escape of his own. As Jason grew, his natural ability at hitting the little white ball became more obvious, and at six he joined his local club in Beaudesert. When the family moved to Rockhampton, almost eight hours away, Day became a member at Capricorn Country Club.
Don’t let the name fool you, it was a 15-hole public course where $100 allowed unlimited golf for the year – but to Jason, it was his own slice of nirvana. He would spend every spare moment playing, or diving into Splitters Creek or the course lake to dig up balls to play with, and if he found a coveted balata ball, he’d save it for tournament play. At school, he was not popular with the ‘in crowd’, teased for being ‘straight off the boat’ thanks to his Filipino heritage. At home, he couldn’t even look like getting out of line because Alvin would have the belt out and wail away for any minor indiscretion. Golf was his salvation. “Golf was definitely an escape,” Jason admits. “Every afternoon after school I ran away from the house, back to the golf course, and didn’t come back until it was dark. “When didn’t pass away, I don’t think I would have been in a good spot. When a door closes, another door opens up for that opportunity. And where I was wasn’t the greatest place and who knows where I would have been. For my mum and sisters to sacrifice for me, so I could get away to a golf academy and work hard, it’s something I’ll always be grateful for.” It wasn’t smooth sailing from the start at Kooralbyn.
Jason still had attitude. He was still a punk when he arrived. He rocked up to his group golf lesson where instructor Colin Swatton was extolling his wisdom on a bunch of keen learners. The likes of Adam Scott and Steven Bowditch had gone through the system at Kooralbyn and it was known if you put in the work, you just might be able to make it in the game. On this particular occasion they were setting up short-game drills but Day wanted to go and play the par-3 course. you’re young, you don’t really think of it as running away from things. It was more running to something I liked and something that helped me focus away from the sad, or angry or not so good parts of life. Golf still is an escape for me now. When I’m on the course I’m at peace more than any other time in my life.” As tough as it already was for Day, it became tougher.
When he was 12 Alvin was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away soon after. His father was gone and so was the fear of discipline. His young world spiralled out of control – drinking alcohol to excess and getting in school and street fights, sometimes with a weapon such as a broken bottle, was the norm. He was destined for a juvenile detention centre. Or perhaps worse. A desperate Dening stepped in, borrowed money from Jason’s uncle and shipped him off to boarding school in the hope he could reignite his love for golf and make a life for himself. And at Kooralbyn International School he once again found his place.
As Jason puts it, “If my dad Swatton said it was not on the agenda but Jason was in his rebellious phase and what could this teacher do to him anyway that his old man hadn’t done? “Let’s just say he did not agree with me,” recalls Swatton, who is still Jason’s coach and also his caddie. “We got into it and it got pretty heated. There was swearing and it was a bit of a scene and then he stormed off and went to do what he wanted to do. It was not the best first impression, that’s for sure.” But after bashing a few balls in anger, Jason started to think about what he had done. Instead of being a stubborn, pigheaded teen he had a mature realisation that would change the course of his life. “I just thought ‘what am I doing?’” he says. “My mum and sisters had given up so much so I could go there and here I was being a complete ratbag. I knew I had to go back and apologise.” And apologise he did, showing Swatton the kid had more to him than initially met the eye. A bond developed and he became the hardest worker at the school.
Swatton recalls a time he gave Jason a drill and said he’d be over soon to check on him, only to get caught up. “It had to be hours and hours later and there he was, still doing the drill, trying to get better,” Swatton recalls. “He out-worked the others. He was up early and out there late. He wanted this from a young age.” Spurring him on was Tiger Woods’ book, where his achievements were mapped out. How he had produced the path to be one of the greatest of all time. At one point, he declared to Swatton he wanted to be world number one. “We wrote out a plan, this is what you need to do, this is what you need to work on,” Jason says. “We said we were trying to get to number one in the world at 22. That was our whole plan.” Swatton wasn’t just giving Jason lip service. He knew, with his work ethic and talent, it was a realistic chance: “I had every reason to believe he could do it.” The plan had four sections – physical, tactical, technical and mental – and all had targets within them. A promising amateur career, including a world junior title, turned plenty of heads but Jason was never going to be one for the US college system and the European Tour didn’t really appeal at the time. They had higher hopes, of going straight to the big time.
He turned pro as a teen and Swatton told Dening he believed Jason could make it. She agreed they should try America – if Swatton went with him. An ambitious attempt to get on tour from six sponsor starts in 2006 fell short, as did his attempts at PGA Tour Q School. But the following season, on the second-tier Nationwide Tour (now the Web.Com Tour) he finished fifth on the money list after becoming the youngest winner at just 19 years, 7 months and 26 days at an event in Ohio. With his confidence up, Jason let a conference call of Australian media in on his plan. “I want to chase Tiger and my goal is to become the number one in the world,” he asserted. “That’s been my goal since I was a little kid. If I work hard on what I need to, I’m sure I can take him down.” It did not go down well. In Australia tall poppies are cut down to size quickly and Jason was savaged. “The next day he came in upset and asked, ‘what did I say wrong?’” Swatton recalls. “‘Everybody wants to be the best in the world. They don’t want to be second or third, do they?’
I reminded him it’s okay to have a lofty goal and want to be the best, but it was a shame the way that blew up.” It rattled Jason. And it put some more scars on a still-fragile psyche underneath his brash outward persona. While he knew he could play, while he knew he was good, he didn’t feel, deep down, he was good enough. When the chance for greatness emerged, Jason was content to back off, rather than run towards it. He was running out of time in his selfstyled schedule to be No.1. He didn’t do much in 2008 and 2009 – and 22 was closing fast. “There were a lot of factors,” he says. “Playing for money was a big one. I’d never had money so most of the time it was my focus instead of the trophy. And it can be uncomfortable in the lead if you don’t embrace it. It’s easier to be a few shots back, out of the pressure. For too long I was more comfortable there.” There was also frustration, and it took Swatton to remind him the plan was devised as a teen. “I reminded him life throws us different opportunities,” Swatton says. “You chose to get married (to Ellie in 2009), you chose to do things that extended the plan. It doesn’t matter if you have them first and then get to No.1, or put that aside and get No.1 first, it will all add up to the same thing overall. We just had to keep working harder.” A breakthrough win came at the 2010 Byron Nelson, a late stumble going unpunished as Blake Adams found water on the last.
The majors beckoned, starting with a T10 finish at the US PGA at Whistling Straits. He was one off the lead through eight in the final round before fading. Runners-up finishes at the Masters and US Open in 2011 followed, beaten by a red-hot Charl Schwartzel and Rory McIlroy respectively. 2012 was hampered by injury, and the birth of his son Dash gave him plenty to think about away from the course. But in 2013 it appeared his time might be coming. Leading by two at Augusta as he stood on the 16th tee, he had the tournament in his hands but went bogey, bogey. He missed the 16th green left and came up short in the sand on 17 despite hitting from the fairway to a back pin. Third. At the US Open, he hit the lead with eight to play, but immediately made a mess of the next hole to fall off the pace. Second. By the time 2015 came around Jason was in the discussion of best players to not have won a major. While he did claim the 2013 World Cup and the 2014 WGC Match Play, further missed chances were getting more attention. The consensus started to become: outstanding talent, can’t close.
Even Jason himself admits he should have won that Masters, and some other chances. He won’t cite excuses but those in the know knew the internal psychological battles from his upbringing, the constant injury niggles in his back, ankle, wrist and hand, and the multiple throat infections and bouts of vertigo he was having were playing a part. Changes needed to be made. He hired trainer Cornel Driessen, who pinpointed a weak core, at the end of 2014. They set about toughening up his body and a win quickly followed at Torrey Pines in February 2015. Another chance followed in New Orleans but again he faded. This time exhaustion and dizziness followed. Unable to figure out what was wrong, Jason pulled out of the Byron Nelson and struggled at the Memorial.
By the US Open he’d had a battery of tests, with no real solutions. In the secondround, playing his final hole at Chambers Bay, he collapsed. Vertigo floored him, but his response would begin to change the narrative of the doubters. A courageous third round saw him join the lead before his energy could not withstand Sunday and he fell to T9. The only positive was a definitive diagnosis of a virus in his ear, allowing medication to significantly control potential episodes of vertigo.
Now seen as a fighter, he entered The Open with real hope, telling those close to him he felt a change. Something was different. Perhaps the realisation he was tough enough for these moments was sinking in. But after sharing the 54- hole lead, he couldn’t find a birdie in his last 12 holes and left his putt to get into the play-off in the jaws on the 72nd. He was shattered, and the whispers started to rise again, but as he flew to Canada that night the disappointment changed to desire. This loss was different, and he was about to prove it. “It’s hard to explain. A switch just flipped. I started to believe – to truly believe,” he says. “I really thought my first major was going to be at The Open. I had a new calm. And I played like it. I knew I had to start running towards pressure. Towards the stress. Embrace it, love it. I’ve learned how to do that.”
A win in Canada, finishing with three birdies, started the run. Two weeks later at Whistling Straits he finished a record 20-under to win his maiden major. “We always thought once he got over the hurdle, it would come in bunches,” Swatton says. A six-shot win at the Barclays and another by half a dozen at the BMW lifted him to the top of the rankings with four wins in six starts. “Knowing that right now there’s no-one on this planet that’s better than me, that’s pretty cool,” Jason says. “It’s been kind of a dream run for me, it’s quite shocking. I thought I always had it in me, but just to be able to do it and play the way I have and finish the way I have has been a fantastic ride. I’m five years late,”
Jason joked of his initial plan. “But better late than never, right?”