By Jason Day’s high standards, 2018 was a good year, not a great year. Only a Major title can appease the former world No.1. Yet with two victories, a runner-up and six top-10 results, it was statistically his third best season on the US PGA Tour.
Given the circumstances, it was a heroic return to form following a traumatic 2017 when he dealt with his mother’s battle with lung cancer and wife Ellie’s miscarriage. Day’s triumph at the Farmers Insurance Open in January was the perfect tonic. Troubled by a chronic back injury that forced his withdrawal from the pro-am, Day eventually saw off Sweden’s Alex Noren in a six-hole playoff and a Monday finish for his first title in 20 months.
Day missed an opportunity a fortnight later when he shared second at Pebble Beach. But he wouldn’t be denied at the Wells Fargo Championship where his phenomenal short game saved him time and again. Day ranked first in putting and second in scrambling, getting up-and-down a staggering 15 times from 16 attempts in the sand.
Despite three top-20 results in the Majors, it was the first year since 2012 that Day failed to register a top 10 in the big four. Nevertheless, at 31 he enters an age-bracket where Australia’s top professionals have traditionally enjoyed their finest moments.
We caught up with Day at his home course in Ohio, the Double Eagle Club, where he talked about missed opportunities, LeBron James’ golf swing, becoming friends with boyhood idol (and fellow golf nerd) Tiger Woods, dealing with a zombie-like sleep routine, and why he bought his son, Dash, a punching bag.
How many players today are playing for history? are you one of them?
I’m definitely one of those guys. There are probably five to 10 right now. You can look at the top of the world ranking and pretty much figure out most of them. The rest? They’re trying to make a good living, enjoy life and go on about their way. I don’t want to put a number on Majors or victories or goals, because sometimes you get to a point where you’re just struggling to get to that number. But let’s say you have 20 to 30 wins and multiple Major championships. Not a lot of guys have done that. I’d also like to win the [modern] career Grand Slam. Only five guys have [Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods]. That, plus being No.1 in the world and 20 to 30 wins, yeah, that’s a pretty phenomenal career.
Having said that, do you care how your career will be evaluated 25 or 100 years from now?
No one’s gonna remember. They remember Jack, Tiger, Arnie, Gary, but that’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The one-name club. I know how hard I work, and I’m trying to win as many tournaments and Majors as I can for me and my team, but I know one day I’m gonna be gone and forgotten. I was just talking to someone the other day who played in the Greg Norman Junior Masters. I know Greg Norman and what he’s done, but kids back home go, “Who’s Greg Norman?” Everyone gets to a point where you’re forgotten, unless you’re in that one-name club.
Speaking of the one-name club, what was your reaction to LeBron leaving Cleveland again?
It’s not as bad as the first time he left. The way they did it in 2010 with “The Decision”, the whole production and “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach”, it cut a lot of people deep, especially diehard Cavs fans. People were burning jerseys. It was nuts. But he won them a title when he came back, so I think that lessened it. I’m a Cavs fan, but I’m an adopted Cavs fan. I live here and have a buddy who has seats on the floor. So at the end of the day, as long as LeBron’s happy and his family is happy, that’s all that matters.
Have you tried to get LeBron into golf?
No. I’ve seen him swing, and it looks terrible. Just awful. To be honest, I don’t really know him that well. When it comes to celebrities, I try to stay away…
…unless they crash into your wife. [Ellie day suffered a concussion in december 2015 when James collided with her while attempting to reach a ball at courtside.]
Exactly! If they reach out to me, I’m happy to respond and maybe spend time with them or get to know them, but when it’s someone as big as LeBron, he’s always got people clawing at him. I remember what it was like for me when I got to No.1, so I can’t imagine what his life is like.
How scary was that in the moment with Ellie, and what kind of interactions have you had with LeBron since then?
I was in shock. If you watch a replay of it, there was a moment when I was sort of smiling and laughing, which is weird, but when something bad happens, that’s usually my reaction, for some reason. When I saw her on the ground, it was obviously really scary. But when I could see that she could move her arms and legs, I knew it would be OK. J.R. Smith and LeBron came over to check on her. Later on, LeBron texted Ellie. I don’t even know how he got her number. He didn’t need to reach out, though. He was just doing his job. But just recently, before he became a free agent and left, he sent a signed jersey with a note saying, “Please come back to a game,” because she hadn’t been back to one since it happened.
What was the reaction after Ellie made her miscarriage public late in 2017
Oh, man. The support we got was amazing. But it’s still tough to talk about.
You and Dash did a Golf Digest father-son cover story a couple of years ago. Is he playing any golf these days?
He does, but he’s really into boxing. My uncle was a Golden Gloves boxer, and my dad taught us how to box. When we got bullied at school, he got us a boxing bag and told us, “Go punch that every day.” He taught us – and this is so bad, but it’s that old-school mentality – that when you get bullied, the first thing you do is knock that person out. That was his mentality. I was more scared of my dad than whoever was bullying me. I remember telling my sister, too, the first thing you do is walk right up to that girl and punch her in the face.
For Dash’s birthday, he got a little speed bag. Mum doesn’t want him to box, but I want him to – it creates good hand-eye co-ordination, and if you can do it properly, you can work on power and take that back into golf. In golf, you use the ground to create the forces to hit it far, and it’s the same thing in boxing with throwing a punch. You have to start with your feet. I’m trying to work on a few technical things with him, like how to get back off the ropes when you’re covering up. He loves it.
Your childhood has been well-documented. Your dad was an alcoholic, and it was rough. You ever think about that time?
I can’t remember my life when I was a kid – maybe intentionally. I talked to a psychologist about it the other day. I blocked it because of certain memories, but I think that’s very natural. If I stayed where I was, no doubt I would’ve been an idiot. It was a learning experience, and unfortunately it was a blessing when he passed away. If he was with me now, I’m not sure anybody would stick around me. He would have been hard to deal with.
Would you describe yourself as injury-prone or accident-prone? You seem to suffer injuries or illnesses more than most people.
Really? No, I don’t think so. But I don’t sleep well. I average about five hours a night. Two days ago, I slept for 2½ hours. I’m always up. I can’t sleep. When you don’t sleep, you don’t recover, and if you don’t recover, your immune system is down, and if your immune system is down, more things can happen.
Do guys on tour give you grief about it?
Not really. Maybe. Not to my face. I don’t pay attention to it if they do, anyway. Tiger can’t give me crap, because I know how injured he’s been. But my back has been phenomenal ever since the start of 2018 – I don’t have any issues whatsoever right now. I wake up with little aches and pains, but it’s not like it used to be when I had back problems or my shoulder was bothering me. I’m glad I’m past all of that.
Has the vertigo subsided? [Day collapsed during the second round of the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay.]
I was on antivirals for about a year-and-a-half just to suppress the virus from growing in my ear. I wasn’t supposed to be on them that long, though, so I just cut it off, cold turkey. Every now and then I’ll get a bout of it, and it’s the worst thing ever. It’s actually happened this past year maybe two or three times, but it was only for nine holes. I didn’t say a word to anyone about it other than my caddie or my wife.
What’s your response to critics who say your high-speed swing might make you prone to injury and affect the length of your career?
I can understand people having concern, or someone giving analysis. But let me put it this way: if you had a cough, and I said it means you’ve got the flu, well, how do you know? It’s the same way with the swing. How do you know what someone’s body is doing – if they have enough rotation or limiting rotation? You don’t know what their body chemistry is. Someone might have bad hips, so they have to swing a certain way. It works the same the other way. So when it comes to people commenting on a golf swing, I understand it, but I don’t agree with it. I just laugh because they’re blowing smoke.
At this point in your career, have you overachieved or underachieved?
Underachieved. I feel like my game is set up to win more Majors than I have and more tournaments than I have. The only thing holding me back is myself. Sometimes it’s a desire thing. Look at Tiger – what made him so dominant for 13 years? It was the same thing for Michael Phelps, who didn’t miss a day of training for five straight years. What makes that person do that? Deep down, there’s a level of motivation that makes this person work harder than anyone else. And to do it for that long and that many years is incomprehensible.
You’ve become pretty good friends with Tiger. How’d that come about?
His caddie, Joe LaCava, said to my caddie at the time, Colin Swatton – this is back in 2013 – “Why don’t you have Jason text Tiger?” We’d met before, but I didn’t have Tiger’s number, so Joey gave it to me, and I think I was the one who texted first. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was something with some swear words in it, because that’s how we talk to each other. I’d known him well enough I guess at that point that we could give it to each other.
We still text and talk all the time, and I’ve been to his house a few times, but he’s still very private and introverted. We talk about personal stuff, but it never gets too personal. It’s mostly just how’s the family, that kind of thing. We talk more golf, because he’s a golf nerd, and I’m a bit of a golf nerd, too.
How often would you say you’re truly in “the zone”? Best examples from your career?
I’ve already been in it twice this year with my wins at Torrey Pines and Quail Hollow. You usually get in it when you’re around the lead. When you’re nervous, it’s easier to get into the zone, too. It can come right before you tee off, even on the range. Once you get in that rhythm, that’s when it comes. But it comes and goes. It generally doesn’t stick around for the whole day or even very long, though sometimes it might. Being in the zone, for me, is not caring about the outcome. Even though I was hitting it terrible the last day at Quail Hollow this year, I was still in the zone because my short game was so good. I knew it didn’t matter where I hit it, because I knew I’d get up and down. I never really panicked because of that. You just know when things go bad, you always have an answer for it. You don’t worry about the outcome. There’s just a level of calmness that takes place, and I wish I could get into it a lot more.
On the flip side, when was your career at its lowest?
Oh, man, 2012 was pretty bad. Dash was born, and I really struggled being a dad for the first time. [The Days’ daughter, Lucy, was born in 2015.] I mean, I was really bad at it. You have to understand, golf is a selfish game, especially when you’re trying to achieve what I’m trying to achieve at the highest level of the sport. Being selfish and having responsibility and not putting yourself first, that’s very difficult. I struggled with how to do that for about a year.
At the end of that year, we had a team meeting, with my coach and caddie, my wife and my agent. We have one at the end of every year. It got tense. I didn’t like what I was hearing, even though I needed to hear it. I didn’t wanna be on the golf course. And then when I went home, I didn’t wanna be at home. And I didn’t wanna practise. I didn’t know where I wanted to be. It was like I wanted to run away. It was easier to do that than face the challenges of being a dad and playing professional golf at the highest level.
And 2017 was pretty bad, too. My mum had cancer, and that was difficult and always on my mind. I was burnt out from being No.1 in the world as well, and all the time and energy that went into not just getting there but what goes into it once you’re there. It’s a lot harder to stay there than get there, which is what makes what Tiger did for so long so incredible.
You beat yourself up pretty good over leaving the putt short on the 72nd green of the 2015 Open at the Old Course. Does that still pop into your head?
No, it’s the opposite. I beat myself up in the moment because I didn’t give myself the opportunity to win by not getting the ball to the hole. It can’t go in if it doesn’t get there. I’d rather ram it five feet by than leave it a couple of inches short. But it was pretty much gone the next day. I remember talking to my agent on the plane ride back and telling him I was going to win that next week, and I did. I shot 68 the last day at Glen Abbey in Canada, Bubba Watson shot 69, and I won by a stroke.
I have a pretty good short-term memory when it comes to losing. You have to have that when it comes to golf.
If the ruling bodies or augusta national were to institute a limited-flight golf ball for professional events, would that be good or bad for the game?
First off, people would still play the Masters. But if they did that, then they better shorten the tees again. If we have limited-flight balls, we’re going to have 4-irons into No.7 and things like that. But do I want the ball to go shorter? No. Why? Isn’t it fun watching Dustin Johnson crush a drive over a lake 300 yards away? No one wants to see someone plod it down the right and not take it on. That’s boring. If you push trying to rein it in too far, then people will stop watching golf. People want to see risk.
The problem is the architects – some of them, anyway – decided that because the ball is going forever, they need to make courses longer to make them harder. No, you don’t. Just be a better architect.
You won the US PGA Championship three years ago at Whistling Straits. Should the Championship travel around the world?
I don’t mind it either way. I really don’t. I’m still going to play it, of course. We’re moving towards a world tour, anyway, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they did do that at some point. If they did, the key is, it has to be in a location, a country that can and will support it from the standpoint of logistics to fans coming out and getting tourists there. But the PGA is also based in America, so it’s fitting for the tournament to be in America.
Do you see hope for the international Presidents Cup team? [The US team has won 10 of 12 competitions, with one tie.] What will be the solution to make it competitive?
I don’t know. The US team is so heavily stacked. It’s really difficult for us. I’d love to see some changes and think there could be some down the road. It would also be cool to play more singles matches – we usually do all right in those. I never got why the number of matches and format aren’t the same as the Ryder Cup, though. The PGA Tour wants to have its own identity with it, yet the International team had to fight over points. We’re getting our butts whooped. That’s all well and good – if we’re not good enough, we’re not good enough. But if it’s so lopsided, who’s going to watch? That’s not good for anyone.
Is there embarrassment in those defeats?
It’s beyond that – it’s become normal. You get whooped so many times, it just becomes the norm. But I think there’s a question of whether the guys even care at this point. Some do, some don’t. You get whooped every time, and you start to ask, “Why are we even turning up for this?”
Did the late Peter Thomson, an icon in Australia and worldwide, ever share something particularly interesting with you?
I didn’t realise the accomplishments the guy had. The five British Opens, everyone remembers, of course. Then he decided he wanted to play the senior tour in the States and won a record nine times in 1985. He was also the president of the Australian PGA for 32 years. I didn’t meet him until late in life, at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in 2011, and then again at the World Cup there two years later, but he was very cut and dry. Unfortunately we only met in passing. He congratulated me on a nice career – it was like the stuff your grandparents would tell you, telling you the nice stuff. But he’d tell you what he was thinking. He had this great, dry wit about him.
Who’s the funniest player on tour today?
Matt Kuchar. He’s so dry and sarcastic, and he’s quick. Like the story of how Phil ran into him on the range with these alligator-green shoes and belt and said to Kuchar, “You have to win three Masters to wear these,” and Kuchar shot right back that he hopes he wins only two. Tiger can be funny, too. We give each other crap all the time. One time at Bay Hill he hit one so far right on 16, and he’s just cussing at me, and I’m giving it right back to him. What he said isn’t fit for print, and I can’t say what I said back to him.