By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
It’s been quite a year.
Truth told, Jason Day’s head is probably still spinning. A tad, at least.
Wouldn’t yours be? This time last year, Day was the young Australian who snuck into the Open Championship when Greg Norman pulled out. Nice kid. First major. Won the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Championship a few months earlier and was suddenly scrambling to learn the quirks of links golf and St. Andrews -- in a couple of jet-lagged days.
Oh, if we had only paid a bit more attention back then.
Once again, Day has vaulted into an Open Championship with just a couple of days to learn what is easily the most capricious course in the rota. But the comparisons stop there.
This time around, Day is a conversation of his own. He’s not necessarily part of the-best-player-yet-to-win-a-major discussions, but the 23-year-old has everyone’s attention. Even the British bookies.
The man who went from inconspicuous to seventh in the world, the man who finished tied for 60th at St. Andrews then backed it up with a tie for 10th at the PGA Championship, a share of second at the Masters and a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open is … well, on the board. In his fifth major.
Ladbrokes has Day in the top 10 at 40/1, right there with two-time Open champ Padraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson, Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and Matt Kuchar -- a step behind those 33/1 boys Sergio Garcia, Steve Stricker, Graeme McDowell and Nick Watney. Only ones ahead of them? Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer.
And those of us who pay attention to such things for a living? We’re wondering if this will be another 2000, when Ernie Els finished second in the first three majors of the year. Or, if Day could be holding the Claret Jug late Sunday afternoon.
Did we mention he didn’t even see Royal St. George’s until Monday? He decided it was more important to be loyal to the John Deere Classic where he closed out his final round in under two hours -- he was playing alone -- and had to leave his signed card in the scoring trailer. No one was there to accept it that early.
As for St. George’s? He heard it was a tough driving course, but you could get away with a 3-wood off the tee. The rest he’d leave to power practice rounds. “I’m going to try my best to take more notice of driving lines, second shots, a lot more of undulations, how the ball bounces,’’ he said.
Things he didn’t observe as closely at St. Andrews. As for specific links shots? Not worried.
“I’ve always had a punch shot,’’ he said. “It just depends because links is a funny, funny game. You can be 50 yards out and putt it. So many different options.”
Such high expectations.
Day is in one of Thursday afternoon’s higher profile pairings with McDowell and Bubba Watson. And with Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy -- Scott shared second with Day at the Masters; Ogilvy tied for fourth there -- in the field, Australian golf is stronger than it has been in years.
The only surprise? It’s Day -- not Scott or Ogilvy -- who is leading the way. And Day who could find himself in a budding rivalry with McIlroy.
Day has seven top-10s this year, including those runner-up finishes and a share of sixth at THE PLAYERS Championship, and he’s solidly in the top 10 in the world. But he’s working hard so he won’t take his season or three straight top 10s at majors for granted.
“The thing is I can’t expect to go into the British Open and play well because once I do that and expect to play well, I’m going to get angry with myself if I make mental errors,’’ Day said. “If I put too many expectations, I’m going to go in and feel like it’s easy and I’ll take it for granted and the best players in the world are playing.’’
Day played both the Masters and the Open with a combination of wide-eyed excitement and joy. He was a bit flabbergasted to be in the mix at the Masters, but made a run until Schwartzel made a run of his own. And, he admits he just got whupped -- like everyone else -- at the U.S. Open.
“I couldn't control what Charl did,’’ Day said. “ And you know, being in contention and you know, being where I was on Sunday of the last two majors is exciting. You know, it's really fun. That's why we compete, and that's why we play, to go out there and try and win tournaments.
“It's not about … some people come out and play for money. It's not about money for me; it's not about money for Rory or all those guys. We know if you play well, the money is going to come with it, and most of the time it's just about getting the hardware, definitely.’’
As for his game? He’s got it all and plans to pull every shot out of his bag this week. Plus, he leads the TOUR in sand saves, something he’ll need this week at Sandwich.
Day admits the year has been pretty amazing. And in the midst of it all, he and his wife are completing a move from Dallas to Ohio.
“It’s been a really good run,’’ Day said. “Been working very hard on my golf game. I've been working very hard on my mental side of my game and obviously the physical side, too, which is good. So it's good to see that all the hard work that I've been doing has been paying off, which is nice.
“It's always taken me a little bit of time to feel comfortable. I'm getting out here and I'm starting to feel that comfort zone, but obviously, you know, I'd like to be one of the guys that wins more regularly out here. And you know, I think if I can do that, you know, if I keep putting myself in these positions to win big tournaments, you know, it's only a matter of time before I can learn to follow through and win.’’
Day never watched the Open growing up. Only the Masters. But he does know about Norman’s win at Sandwich and he has shown he’s a quick study at majors.
It should, he said, be fun.
“It will be tough,’’ he said, “but, when conditions get tougher, I feel I play better.”
After the year he’s had, no one’s about to argue. With his talent, his excitement or his smile.
As for that head of his? Even if it is still spinning … well, it’s headed exactly where he’s aiming -- in a major direction.