That was in 2011 when he had been on the tour for four years and won only the one tournament, the Byron Nelson at the Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas. He arrived in Augusta as the 41st best player in the world but suffering with the kind of doubts that occasionally afflict everyone who picks up a club, even weekend hackers. He had got to wondering why he even bothered playing. “Golf is a very, very frustrating game, I sympathise with everyone that’s played golf,” Day says.
“It can be very …,” he paused, searching for the right word, then restarted. “It’s emotional highs and lows in the game of golf. There are moments when you’re going through very, very rough times, and you’re hating the game.”
Day was having one of those moments early in 2011. He had finished tied for 10th at the PGA Championship the previous year but in the three tournaments running up to the Masters missed the cut, then finished tied 51st, and tied 45th. The Australian had fallen into what he calls a “downward spiral”. The game he had fallen in love with when he was a kid on the junior amateur circuit, “playing for nothing other than pride and toasters”, seemed very different to the one he had ended up doing for a living.
“Once you turn professional, everything is based on results,” Day says. “You have to perform, because if you don’t perform, then you’re off the tour.” He was stressing about whether he would have “enough money to get my card for next year”.
Day started to lose confidence, stopped working at his game. “You start getting frustrated out there, and then you don’t practise because you’re frustrated with how you’re playing. And it’s a downward spiral from there.”
The upshot was Day arrived at the Masters, a tournament he had been dreaming about since he first started to follow the game, at the lowest ebb he had known since those very same days when he was a kid watching it on television. He wound up cowering on a bus over the road from the main gates, with his agent, his wife, and a sports psychologist. “We’re just sitting there, and I’m like: ‘I do not like the game right now. I’m just having a very, very hard time picking up the golf club.”
Day was at that point, he says, when players start thinking about “getting rid of caddies and coaches and agents and sometimes wives”. Instead, he made a more radical call. He decided he would give up the game instead. “We came to the conclusion of just going and saying this might be my last Masters ever, I may as well enjoy it.”
The punchline is he shot a 72 in the first round, a 64 in the second, and had a share of the clubhouse lead on Sunday, before he finished tied for second, two shots back from Charl Schwartzel. It was the first time Day had finished inside the top three at a major. Hardly needs saying, but afterwards, “I loved the game again.”
Five years later, that tie for second is still Day’s best finish at the Masters. Two years later, in 2013, he finished one further back. On the Sunday he arrived at the par-three 16th off a sequence of three successive birdies. He was nine‑under, and leading the field. Then, he says, “I kind of gassed it.” He got a little too caught up in the leaderboard, because there were “five or six guys who could win it” and started to worry about all “the oohs and ahs from what’s going on behind me”.
At the 16th, he mishit his eight iron off the tee, sent the ball long and left. As he says now, one of the secrets of Augusta is “knowing where to miss it”. And the long and left on 16 is not one of those spots. He made a bogey there, another on 17, and finished third behind Adam Scott, who became the first Australian to win a Green Jacket.
In the two years since, Day finished tied 20th and tied 28th at the Masters, even as he has risen to No1 in the rankings. He has racked up six top-10 finishes in the nine other majors he has played in that time, a run culminating in his astonishing victory at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straights last year, when he became the first man to finish 20-under-par at a major.
Day says his problem at Augusta was that he had been trying too hard, “making things too complicated where they should be simple”. He says those good performances in 2011 and 2013 ended up working against him. “As time went on, everyone would keep on asking me: ‘When are you going to win it?’ and ‘how are you going to win it?’ and all that stuff. That’s when I started missing stuff and making mistakes and mental errors.”
Now Day wants to get back to something like the way he played in those early years here. Instead of “trying too hard, trying to force and will it in”, he’s going to relax, “try and play the way I have been and hopefully I’ll give it a good run at the end of the week”.
At the same time, he rightly reckons if he is in contention on Sunday, he is better equipped to handle and deal with the pressure. “With what I’ve done the last year and a half, I feel like I’m preparing myself for a good Sunday here and a good final nine.”
He says that, like every fan out there, he wants a “Spieth-McIlroy-Fowler-Scott-Watson-Mickelson Sunday”. If he ends up “not wearing the Green Jacket but I have a fantastic competitive match on Sunday against the best players in the world, that’s what I’m there for”. And he may not have been there at all, if it had not been for the way he played in 2011.
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