Jason Day holds steady and savors emotional major breakthrough at PGA

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — It’s confirmed: Meditation works. To know that, all you had to do was look at Jason Day’s heavy-lidded, half-closed eyes, then check his record-setting scorecard in the PGA Championship. All afternoon the 27-year-old Australian played jagged, perilous Whistling Straits as if he were in a semi-trance. It wasn’t until he stood over the final putt for the Wanamaker Trophy that his eyes seemed to fully snap open, and then they filled with tears.

It’s always rewarding to see a great young player break through and become the champion he is meant to be, but Day’s victory on Sunday was doubly so, because there had always been an element of self-doubt in him. The minute he tapped in for a final-round 67 that gave him a record low for a major at 20 under par, it seemed inevitable in retrospect. Day is simply too good a player not to be a minted major champion. But it was easy for the audience to see that, not so easy for a striver who so palpably yearned to feel the print of his palms on a heavy silver trophy.

“A lot of emotion came out of me, because I had been so close so many times,” Day said. “Just really close, and hadn’t done it.”

Half a dozen times Day had finished in the top five of major championships without winning. He had been in the top 10 nine times. Other players had won faster than him and more easily than him. Namely Jordan Spieth, the dead-eyed 22-year-old who trailed him by just two strokes at the start of the day and who was having a season for the ages, with victories in the Masters and the U.S. Open this spring. But Day never gave Spieth a realistic chance. Instead he demonstrated that winning is an acquired trait, and that it is possible, with a sheer act of mental will, to change a losing mind-set. Behind Day’s somnambulist eyes was a player clawing for his competitive life. “I was mentally and physically grinding it out as hard as I could,” Day said. “I wasn’t going to stop fighting until it was over.”

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All afternoon, Day fought the pressure, both self imposed and the pressure that Spieth sought to put on him. The younger and more confident phenom searched for opportunities to make things “maybe a little more nerve wracking for him,” Spieth said. As if Spieth’s mere presence in the final pairing wasn’t enough: He needed only the smallest opening to make some history, a victory would have made him just the third man in the modern era to win three majors in a single year, along with Ben Hogan (1953) and Tiger Woods (2000). In the end, Day had to hold off a player who came within just four strokes of a Grand Slam sweep of the four professional majors.

It was the element of Day’s unprovenness that Spieth was counting on.

The wind was up on the narrow ledge that is Whistling Straits, a par-72 along the banks of Lake Michigan, and the first few holes were playing into the teeth of it. Spieth figured Day might make an early bogey on the tight, precipitous layout and let him in. “That was where I was looking to capitalize,” Spieth said.

Spieth had the edge in winning experience, whereas all of Day’s experience was in finishing runner-up. He wasn’t a closer. For his career on the PGA Tour he was just 1 for 7 when it came to leading tournaments after 54 holes and getting the win. And they both knew it. Moreover, Day knew that if he let this tournament get away it would make winning in the future all the more difficult. “It would have been very tough for me to come back from this, mentally,” he admitted. “I would have gone, ‘Maybe I can’t really finish it off.'”

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Instead, on hole after hole, Day would made a few deep exhalations, blink slowly — and then lash a titanic shot up the soft green fairways of Whistling Straits that made Spieth feel like never could gain any momentum, despite a final round of 68. “He took it back and he wailed on it, and it was a stripe show,” Spieth said. Day made four birdies in his first seven holes, busting drives of 375 and 380 yards, and was left with just wedges into the greens.

The clincher of the round may have been the 573-yard 11th hole. If Day had hit off line there, there was enough trouble in the chin-high bunkers and wiregrass that it might have changed the round. Instead Day struck such a mighty drive that when Spieth saw where it landed he turned to Day and said helplessly, “Holy —. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Day laughed, and flexed a bicep at him. He had just a wedge to the hole. A tap in birdie putt gave him a four-stroke lead with seven to play. It was his to lose.

There were times over the last few holes when Day started to roll the tape in his mind, of previous experiences. At the 2011 Masters, he was passed by Charl Schwartzel. Earlier this year at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he suffered a bout of vertigo that required medical treatment and watched Spieth go on to the victory. Just last month in the final round at the British Open, he couldn’t make a final birdie putt drop on the 18th hole and just missed making a playoff. That loss left him in tears. There were times when his mind strayed into the future too, and he had to reel it back in. “It was the hardest round I ever had to play,” he said.

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Asked on Saturday night if there was anything new he needed to do, Day had replied, “I haven’t won before, so that’s something that is possibly a new experience for me tomorrow.” He was secure enough to dwell on what had prevented him from breaking through before and what he needed to do different. “Really not trying to beat yourself,” he said. “I think the hardest thing for a player is when they’re trying to close, they get in their own way.”

Somehow, he did much better than get out of his own way. He ran away with the tournament, slamming the door on an array of hard chargers that included Branden Grace (69) in third place and Justin Rose in fourth (70). But nothing was more difficult than to draw away from Spieth in what was essentially match play, against someone universally acknowledged to be one of the toughest competitors in the game. “To be able to hold him off, knowing he’s going to be the best player in the world, the way I played, it felt great,” Day said.

Spieth was gracious in defeat, but then he had reason to feel good even with the loss. In the majors this year he finished 1-1-4-2, one of the great individual seasons in all of golf history. It was enough to wrest the No. 1 ranking away from Rory McIlroy. “I accomplished one of my lifelong goals in golf,” Spieth said. “I’ll always be known as having been a number one ranked golfer in the world.”

It was a happy story: two young players who each won something. Spieth got the title of top-ranked golfer, and Day won the major title that will make it immeasurably easier for him to win more. “I guess you can take me off the best-player-without-a-major list now,” Day said. “It’s good to be a major champion.”