That’s when he paused to reflect, and to make a confession.
One of the worst labels hung on any golfer is that he’s only playing for a check. Day said he used to be one of those guys.
“I’m going to be honest here,” he said, almost as if he had something he wanted to get off his chest. “I come from a very poor family. So it wasn’t winning that was on my mind when I first came out on the PGA Tour. It was money. I wanted to play for money because I’d never had it before. Winning takes care of everything. And it’s not about the money anymore. I just to play golf – golf that I love – and win trophies.”
To look at his raw skill is to forget that few things in life have come easily to the 26-year-old Australian.
His father died of cancer when Day was 12. As a kid, he had to shop at a used clothing store, where for $5 he could stuff as much as he could into one bag. Finding refuge in golf and inspiration from the work ethic of Tiger Woods, he won a Nationwide Tour event at 19 and seemingly was on his way.
After six years on the PGA Tour, he earned close to $14 million – but had only one win, at the Byron Nelson Championship. He had a pair of close calls at the Masters Tournament, and nudged even closer to a major last year at Merion when he tied for second behind Justin Rose.
But it’s all about winning. Day seems to have figured that out.
It’s easy to call the Match Play Championship the biggest win of his career because there hasn’t been many others. But when he sat down with his team last fall before embarking on a new season, the goals were clear.
“That’s all I’m trying to do is win,” he said.
Day refuses to look back at the past six years as an underachievement. The hard work never stopped even as the trophy case was relatively empty. Day set the bar high when he first joined the PGA Tour through the Nationwide Tour and said he was ready to take down Woods.
There’s still time. Plenty of time.
Day only has to look at Scott and Justin Rose, who didn’t win majors until they were in their early 30s. He no longer is hung up on Woods and Rory McIlroy, both of whom had won multiple majors by this time.
“I think the biggest thing for myself is just to understand I’m not Rory. I’m not Tiger. I’m not Adam Scott. I’m not Justin Rose,” he said. “I’m Jason Day.”
He has reason to be excited.
The Masters is just around the corner, a place so special that Day refers to it as the closest thing to heaven on Earth. He made a late surge at Augusta National in 2011 before Charl Schwartzel blew past everyone with four straight birdies. Last year, he had a two-shot lead standing on the 16th tee and made back-to-back bogeys, finishing two shots out of the playoff.
The goal hasn’t changed. He still wants to be No. 1 in the world. And he knows now it won’t be easy.
Then again, his week at Dove Mountain was anything but that. And in a format where every day feels like Sunday, that might turn out to be the biggest payoff.
“As long as I keep working hard and I want it as much as this, hopefully the floodgates will open and I’ll win a lot more,” Day said. “But it’s totally up to me if I want to win one more or 10 more or 20 more. It’s just how much I want it.”