Jason Day is hungry.
No, this is not a metaphorical reference to the winless drought the former world No.1 has endured since the 2016 Players Championship. It’s 9:30am on a drizzly Monday, and Day has been tied up with television interviews before his charity golf event, the Brighter Days Foundation Invitational.
Finally, he’s able to break free for breakfast. He moves swiftly along the buffet spread in the spacious dining room at Double Eagle Club, and then he takes a seat next to a familiar face before methodically ploughing through scrambled eggs and potatoes, garnished with a healthy glop of ketchup.
The figure to his left, the familiar face, is fellow Australian Colin Swatton, his swing coach and, now, former caddie. Last month at the BMW Championship, Day benched Swatton from his bag. It was a painful decision, replacing the man who has nurtured him as a person and a golfer, who has been like a father to him. But Day wanted to preserve their relationship before it became strained. Swatton’s presence was testament to their fealty to and feelings for each other.
Day provided further proof that the two are in a good place when he responds to a question about parts of his game that require attention as a new US PGA Tour season commences.
“Well, getting rid of Col helps …” he began, and the two men burst into laughter.
In town for four days to work with Day on his swing mechanics, Swatton is unable to play in the charity event. Four weeks ago, he nearly lopped off the tops of his first two fingers on his left hand with an electric hedge trimmer while gardening at his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Had he not been wearing gloves – and he usually doesn’t – he’d have lost both fingers. He was fortunate the injury required only 13 stitches. “A weird kind of luck,” he said.
(By the way, what is it with us Aussies and power tools? Recall that Greg Norman nearly lost his hand to a chainsaw.)
Last year, Day took the final three months off, sensing burnout and needing to rest an achy back after two hectic and highly successful years that included his first Major title at the 2015 US PGA Championship and his wire-to-wire Players win in 2016. In all he won eight times in those two seasons while reaching No.1 in the world.
“I knew I needed the break, to re-energise, and I had done it the year before and I felt great,” he said. “This last year, I shouldn’t have done it. It was too much time off. So now I understand that I need to play.”
So, this northern autumn he is playing. He’ll compete in the inaugural CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in Jeju Island, South Korea, next week, followed by his first appearance in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China. In late November, he’ll come home for the Emirates Australian Open and then head to the Bahamas for Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge.
He’ll bring back his mother, Dening, with him from Australia. Or, perhaps, he’ll be dragging her back.
In May, a teary-eyed Day withdrew from the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship after Dening was diagnosed with lung cancer. He found it impossible to concentrate while she awaited surgery. The operation was a success, and a month later she insisted on returning to Queensland and resuming her job.
“She’s stubborn,” Day said with a grin. “We have my people here always communicating with my mum, but she has her own things she wants to do. She likes her independence. But I’m going to bring her back and makes sure she sees her docs and get her follow-up tests. She’s doing good. It’s a huge relief, because it was hard being on the golf course. I struggled to focus. But it’s something I can feel good about now.”
His year was a victory, if only for saving his mum.
Mornings like this are a triumph, too. And though the clouds refuse to part, his mood is light. He embraces the pursuit of raising money for the Brighter Days Foundation, which he and his wife, Ellie, began several years ago. Proceeds of the invitational were earmarked for Stowe Mission, which helps at-risk inner city residents in a variety of ways – education, medical needs, job training and nutrition.
Day’s brother-in-law, Clark Harvey, the foundation president, said the event could raise close to $500,000, and he marvels at Day’s enthusiasm for the project. “Because of Jason’s humble beginnings, they wanted to find a partner in their community that benefits Central Ohio’s most vulnerable residents, and Stowe Mission [ticks] all those boxes. It’s an incredible success story, and it really touches Jason and Ellie.”
Day this year earned more than four times the amount raised – just on the golf course. His endorsements bring in millions more. And, yet, it’s easy to sense a real purpose in him, perhaps because of his hardscrabble upbringing. He takes nothing for granted. He never forgets.
He knows real hunger. He knows the feeling of helplessness.
He tells the story of his late father giving him and his mum and two sisters $20 for a thrift store. Not $20 for each of them but to split among them.
“I never thought I’d be able to do something like this,” he said. “I was in the same situation. I remember going down to St Vinny’s, it was a thrift store, and we would get a shopping bag for $5 and shove as much as we could into that bag. That was our clothes for the whole year. We grew up in a pretty challenging environment.
“I’m just thankful that I have a platform now where I can impact someone’s life, and to be able to do it in Central Ohio, in our backyard … I mean, this is home for us. I don’t live anywhere else,” he added. “Yeah, I didn’t have the kind of season I would have wanted, and that was tough. But was it really a tough thing? Not really. Not in any way compared to the problems some people are facing every day.
“From where I came from, all of the things I’m able to do now … I still find it pretty amazing.”
But, of course, this year wasn’t professionally satisfying, even though he can sift through it and find a bright spot: reaching the Tour Championship despite just five top-10 finishes, his lowest output since 2012. “I never felt truly prepared,” said the 10-time tour winner, who has dropped from first to ninth in the world rankings since January. “I felt like I was in catch-up mode the whole year.”
His statistics bear out a stunning fall-off in key categories. He was 172nd in driving accuracy, 139th in greens in regulation, and 114th in total putting. His 70.115 scoring average was nearly a stroke higher than the previous year, and, in fact, was his highest in five years.
“I know everything was down across the board, but saying that, being able to get to the Tour Championship was huge,” he said. “I still had a chance to win the FedEx Cup.”
Day and Swatton are planning on an intense few days to break down the functionality of Day’s swing. “Fortunately, we have a blueprint going back to 2007,” Swatton said, referring to the 3-D bio imaging of Day’s golf swing taken annually. “We can look at different years when he was successful and see what is moving differently.”
Naturally, Day, who will continue to employ boyhood friend Luke Reardon on the bag, expects brighter days on the course. His goals are lofty and specific, and without the distractions he can better focus on achieving them. Turning 30 next month, he approaches the sweet spot of his career.
“I’m excited about doing a reset,” he said. “If I can get back to where I was early last year and improve on it a little bit, I think I can get back to winning tournaments pretty quickly. I’m ready to start winning again.”
Yes, Jason Day is hungry.