For a large part of the final round of last year's Masters Tournament, Jason Day looked poised to enter the record books as the first Australian winner at Augusta. Showing a coolness that Rory McIlroy would have done well to emulate, Day surged into a share of the lead with a nerveless display of sublime ball-striking and deft putting. It was a performance made all the more remarkable because Day was making his Masters debut. Augusta, we're constantly told, is a course that takes years to master. You can't just turn up and expect to contend. Clearly no one had informed the then 23-year-old Day, who swaggered through the Georgian pines like a man who'd seen it all before.
What Australian golf fans hadn't bargained on was Charl Schwartzel. The South African's birdie blitz over the final stretch has become the stuff of legend. Nobody in the history of the tournament has birdied the closing four holes to win the coveted green jacket but that's precisely what Schwartzel managed. South Africans rejoiced; Australia's mourned. How cruel this game can be.
Not that Day was feeling particularly sorry for himself.
"That's one of the most exciting tournaments I've ever played in," beamed Day minutes after Schwartzel had been presented with that greatest of apparel prizes.“I’m very happy with how I played today. I was out there and you’re walking down the fairway and there’s so many roars, you don’t know what’s going on and you see a number pop up on the leader board and the crowd is going crazy.
"It’s lived up to everything I expected, and more, which is fantastic."
To understand what Augusta means to Day, you need to go back to when Day's father Alvyn introduced him to golf at the age of three. Back to the ropey old three-wood Alvyn found at the local rubbish dump, which fuelled Day's love affair with the game. At the age of six he joined his first golf club when he became a junior member at Beaudesert, a friendly club some 20 miles from Queensland's Gold Coast.
Alvyn always believed his son would play the Masters, so much so that as he lay on his death-bed at the end of a long fight with stomach cancer he called Day into his room and made a final request. He asked him to spread some of his ashes on Augusta when he eventually played the Masters. At this point, Day hadn't even turned 12.
"It's funny how far I have come from losing my dad," says Day. "A bunch of things I wouldn't wish on another kid but all those things that I experienced in the past just added to the strength and the willpower to try and improve and get better. I have worked really, really hard to get there. I have always worked hard."
In the aftermath of his father's death, Day turned to drink and admits to being an alcoholic by his early teens. Routinely getting into trouble at school, Day's life changed for the better after his Filipina mother took out a second mortgage on their home in order to send him to Kooralbyn International School, a renowned boarding school with a golf programme on the outskirts of Brisbane. The school counts Adam Scott and Australian Olympic heroine Cathy Freeman among its alumni.
"It was very easy to stop partying because there was nothing else to do except go to school and golf. There was literally nothing around us," Day says. "So I was pretty much forced to go to school and golf. And I realized what my mum had done, and that I needed an education.
"I feel very, very blessed to have the people in my life who have guided me along the way."
A book on Tiger Woods he found at the school, which detailed a young Tiger regularly breaking 70 before he turned 15, moved Day to lug his golf clubs more than a mile to the driving range at dawn and pound golf balls. He met another motivator, academy golf coach Colin Swatton, who guided and mentored Day and became a surrogate father. He's still Day's coach and has caddied for him since his early professional days.
"I practiced 32 hours a week," says Day. "All I did was go to school and play golf. I didn't have much of a social life."
Day quickly improved and went to the USA to ply his craft on the Nationwide Tour, where in 2007 he became the youngest, at 19 years, seven months, to win on the PGA Tour's developmental circuit. In 2008 he made 13 of 28 cuts on the PGA Tour. In 2009, 14 of 18. In 2010 he made 18 of 24 cuts and earned his first Tour win – the HP Byron Nelson Championship – good for a US$1.17 million payday.
But it was 2011 that proved to be Day's real breakthrough season. After that Masters performance, Day recorded three top 10s in his next four starts before finishing second at the very next major – the US Open at Congressional, which was won by McIlroy who bounced back superbly following his Augusta meltdown of just two months previously.
There are many in the game that believe McIlroy and Day have what it takes to dominate golf between them for the next 10 years, but the latter, who reached No 7 in the world rankings following another high finish at September's Bridgestone Invitational, is initially more circumspect when it comes to discussing his future.
"People expect me to play well in tournaments and play well in majors," says Day. "They expect me to win. It's hard not to put pressure on yourself when people expect you to win. I will be playing practice rounds and people will yell out, 'Go get them this week, I have money on you.'
"All these things add up and put more pressure on your shoulders. That's why I don't read any articles about myself any more. When I do read them I feel like I expect to win. I can't do that. The moment I go out there and don't win I am going to get disappointed."
Nevertheless, Day has a determination to succeed and, like his father, believes in his abilities.
"What I want to do is play somewhere between 15 to 20 years of golf. I want to accomplish a lot of goals. I want to win as many majors as I can and maintain the No 1 spot for as long as I can.
"[But] right now I want to be a guy who is a contender each and every week. When Tiger Woods came out in 2000 he dominated. Phil Mickelson has had a great career. Vijay Singh is similar. I would like to be one of those guys and get into the golf Hall of Fame."
Says coach-caddie Swatton: "Guys who turn pro at an early age sometimes suffer the ultimate humiliation in that what they love also becomes their Achilles heel. Jason turned pro at a very young age – 18 or 19 – and basically went into the biggest tour in the world. That is sometimes a very difficult thing to do successfully.
"That's what I think people sometimes forget. He has been able to do what a lot of people haven't been able to do – to play successfully on the biggest stage in the world and continually become better each year. He hasn't come over, done well and then slipped off the map. He has just got a little bit better every year. It says something about Jason and what he wants to achieve."
But for all his success – he has accumulated close to US$10 million in earnings on the PGA Tour and fulfilled a dream by playing in November's Presidents Cup – Day says that the most invigorating change in his life took place nearly three years ago when he married Ellie Harvey, an attractive Ohioan who is at his side at every tournament. Harvey is now pregnant and is due to give birth to the couple's first child in the summer.
"In any sport, if you're good at your profession, it's easy to get loud, get a big head and think you're the man," says Day. "Having Ellie with me – she is with me all the time – she brings me down when she needs to. She is a great wife. She has always been there. She is a great supporter."
Family means everything to Day, which is evident by his recent announcement that he will forgo playing in the Open Championship if his baby arrives beforehand. "There is no way I will miss the birth of my first child. Golf is one thing but family means much, much more."
As for sprinkling his father's ashes on the hallowed Augusta turf, Day says he'll approach the club.
"That was one of my dad's wishes and if I was allowed to do it, that would be great," says Day. "Obviously I know how the rules are at Augusta, it would probably be very unlikely, but we'll see how it goes."
You have to think it would be unlikely, but if Day can go one better than last year and put in the request as the Masters champion, you really never know.
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