Standing on the seventh green Friday while waiting his turn to putt, Jason Day shook his shoulder-length hair and poured water into his cap. The temperature was rising and Day’s score was threatening to do likewise.
After scoring 69 in the opening round of the AT&T National, good for a fifth-place tie, he was 2 over for the day with just three holes remaining. Meanwhile, playing partner Robert Garrigus was as hot as the weather, charging up the leader board with six birdies to three bogeys. Day went par-birdie-par to finish his round and minimize the damage, leaving him tied for 15th-place at 1 under.
“I haven’t played great, but I haven’t played that bad,” said the 24-year-old Australian, summing up his year and his week. “It’s good to be back here and last year was great. I’ve still got two more days to go, and I feel like I’m in pretty good position.”
He’s actually in better shape this year after two rounds at Congressional. Last year, when he wound up second behind runaway winner Rory McIlroy in the U.S. Open, Day sat at 1 over entering Saturday.
But his score and the course conditions are minor differences compared to other changes since then. In 21 tournaments last year, he had 10 finishes in the top 10 and was ninth on the money list, with a career-high $3.96 million. He placed second in The Masters as well as the U.S. Open, apparently signaling his arrival among golf’s wave of young guns.
That was then. This is 2012: 10 tournaments, one withdrawal (The Masters), two missed cuts (including the Players Championship), a tie for 59th (U.S. Open) and just two top-10 finishes.
Those are just valuable lessons in the on-going education of a pro golfer. In his fifth full season on the PGA Tour, Day has come to understand that physical injuries and personal issues can have as much impact on one’s game as chipping and putting.
A bum left ankle forced him out of The Masters this year, after lower back pain had cost him the first six tournaments of the season. But the most difficult adjustment has been dealing with his wife’s pregnancy. Ellie Day, who’s renowned for walking every hole with her husband since he joined the Tour in 2008, is due in a couple of weeks and hasn’t accompanied Day since the Byron Nelson in May.
“It’s hard to compartmentalize and try to put things in a box — golf life, personal life,” Day said. “It’s kind of showed up in my game this year. She’s been very, very sick, feeling nauseous, and it’s been hard for her. There’s really nothing I can do but I still worry about her like every husband would.”
“And obviously, when you have injuries and you worry about those, it’s tough,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt yourself even more when you’re playing, so you have to take time off. But then you feel like you’re behind the eight ball and you have to try to catch up.”
He figures this season’s struggles are teaching him more than he learned during the success in 2011 and 2010 (when he was 21st on the money list with $2.9 million). Unlike his idol and mentor Tiger Woods, Day isn’t one to study the game and pore over the process when he’s playing well. But while his trials have been instructive, they have also bordered on discouraging.
“Sometimes you feel like you just want to get up and quit,” he said. “You have to fight through it. Sometimes you don’t get the motivation to play. You have to get through that part.”
It’s mostly a solitary fight for Day. He worked with noted sports psychologist Fran Pirozzolo in the past, and he talks to Woods “every now and then when it’s just me and him and it’s quiet,” but Ellie is his primary confidante/running mate.
“Golf is a lot of airplanes, a lot of hotels, a lot of golf courses and not much in-between,” he said, cooling down in the clubhouse after his round. “It can get very, very lonely out here, especially if you’re a guy who sticks to himself like me. Every now and then I hang out, but that’s why I miss her so much; because she’s normally with me and I’m normally hanging out with her.”