- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SYDNEY (AP) - Jason Day returns home as the highest-ranked Australian in golf, and it’s a wonder anyone recognizes him.

They know all about his prodigious talent, winning on the Nationwide Tour at age 19. They probably remember his bold comments about Tiger Woods at the end of 2007, when Day first earned his PGA Tour card.

“I’m sure I can take him down,” he said.

Most of them were watching on TV when he was runner-up at the Masters and the U.S. Open.

They just haven’t seen him.

It has been nearly five years since Day last played a tournament in Australia. That was part of his Nationwide Tour campaign that brought him to the PGA Tour, and since then he has worked on travel papers, dealt with sinus and other injuries, married an American girl and tried to settle into homes in Texas and more recently in Ohio.

He will be hard to miss Thursday in the Australian Open. Not only is Day at No. 7 in the world ranking, he will be spending the opening two rounds at The Lakes with Woods and Robert Allenby.

“It is good to be back,” Day said. “It’s amazing how things have changed over the years I’ve been away. The change is for the good. Everything is new. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Despite not winning this year, there is a confidence about the way he plays that leads many to think it won’t be long before Day is challenging for No. 1 in the world. At a time when golf seemingly is owned by youth, his name often gets mentioned in the same sentence as U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, former PGA champion Martin Kaymer and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

Day, who celebrates his 24th birthday on Saturday, figures to be part of the action when he tees off Thursday afternoon at The Lakes, a course that allows for players to go after a few short par 4s, and especially the reachable par 5s over the water.

“Does he have the talent to be world No. 1? Absolutely, absolutely he does,” Woods said. “He hits the ball plenty long, a wonderful putter. He has the right attitude for it. It’s just that to get to world No. 1, it takes time. You’ve got to win golf tournaments and you’ve got to be consistent, week in and week out. Just give him time and I’m sure he’ll get there.”

Day thought it might happen much sooner.

Coming off his Nationwide Tour success in 2007, he gave an interview to the Australian media in which he spoke of Woods as his measuring stick. If he won two tournaments his first year on tour, then that’s what Day wanted to do.

But it hasn’t come as easily. He didn’t win until his 59th start as a PGA Tour member, at the Byron Nelson Championship last year, as he coped with high hopes and injuries.

“I stopped practicing and thought it was going to come easy,” Day said. “Obviously, it didn’t. It’s very stiff competition on the PGA Tour. I had to get back to working on everything, not just my golf swing. I finally realized that when you get to a level like this, it’s not about making huge changes to your swing. It’s about having the little things right and being mentally prepared for each week.”

He finally gets to play on a big stage with Woods at a time when their careers are going in opposite directions.

This marks the two-year anniversary of the last time Woods won any tournament in the world, the Australian Masters at Kingston Heath down in Melbourne. He has fallen to No. 58 in the world, the lowest since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 1996 trying to get his card.

Day had a pair of top 10s in the FedEx Cup playoffs, pushing him into the top 10.

Like so many young players, Woods was an influence on his game.

“I read a book about Tiger and that’s why I woke up every morning at 5:30 and went out and practiced,” Day said. “I got up to 32 1/2 hours a week of practice because of that guy. He has influenced my life a lot. I’ve always wanted to play against him. It’s going to be fun when we have that chance to play against each other. It is going to be very friendly, but obviously we want to beat each other.”

There will be other players to beat at The Lakes.

This is the best field this proud championship has had in years. The Australian Open is the fourth-oldest national championship behind Britain and the United States, and behind Canada based on the calendar. It’s past champions include Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Greg Norman.

Woods is among 13 players at the Australian Open _ along with captains Norman and Fred Couples _ who will be in the Presidents Cup next week at Royal Melbourne.

Woods hasn’t been the same since the Australian Masters two years ago. He was exposed for serial adultery, missed five months trying to get his life in order, got divorced, changed swing instructors and has spent the better part of this year coping with leg injuries that caused him to miss most of the summer.

“I haven’t played a lot of tournaments this year,” Woods said.

He embarks on a stretch of three events in four weeks, concluding with his Chevron World Challenge the first week in December, before taking an offseason break for about six weeks.

This could take time, though his peers that once expected nothing but the best have not given up on him.

“You can lose the form, but you never lose that talent,” Adam Scott said. “Once he gets back into those positions with his game, he’ll find it not too hard to have that edge again. You can’t write the guy off. Every time we have, he has proved us wrong in the past.”

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