Days only get better as golf life moves forward

By Tod Leonard
Published on
Days only get better as golf life moves forward

Dash Day was living up to his name.

As a couple thousand fans surrounding the 18th green of the Torrey Pines South Course watched the trophy ceremony following Jason Day's win in the Farmers Insurance Open last February, his dark-haired, then 2- 1/2 -year-old son, Dash, charged into a bunker and was happily kicking up sand.

Ellie Day wrapped her arms around her husband and Colin Swatton, the man who is far more than just Day's caddie and coach, stood off to the side, an enormous smile lighting up his sunburned face.

Team Day had its first victory of 2015, and no one in this merry group fathomed how much better the season would be. In seven months' time, the 28-year-old Day would have four more victories in his greatest year, including the breakthrough major win in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

If anything, the Torrey Pines moment was more about reflection.

Eleven years earlier, Day celebrated on the same South green with no more than a couple dozen people looking on, and only Swatton had a true inkling of his talents. As a 16-year-old playing in his first big junior tournament in America, Day captured the Callaway Junior World Championship.

Two scenes serving as San Diego bookends to Day's early career and life.

Until Day won the Junior World at Torrey Pines, Swatton didn't know his pupil was ready for a bigger stage. By the time of the second Torrey triumph, Day was married, a father and on the cusp of reaching the highest levels of his professional life.

"At the time when you win, you're caught up in the moment. You're thinking about what you're going to say in your speech, and you're meeting people," Day said on a media-day visit to Torrey Pines a couple of weeks ago to promote the tournament that begins on Thursday.

"But afterward -- man, I was thinking, 'This is a special place for me.' It's been so good for me. This is where it all started for me. If I didn't win the Junior World here, then I wouldn't have gone on the tear I did back home. It gave me so much confidence moving forward, that I could win on a (PGA Tour) golf course.

"I thought that if I could win here, I could win anywhere."

That kind of confidence has always been hard won for Day. He's been brutally honest at times about some of the difficulties of his past, especially about his tough upbringing. His father, Alvin, who worked as a meat packer, cut down a 3-wood he found in the trash as Jason's first club.

But Day revealed in an interview with Golf Magazine last summer that his father physically abused him, and if Alvin Day had not died of pancreatic cancer when Jason was 12, he said he probably wouldn't have ended up at the live-in golf academy where Swatton became his instructor and unofficial guardian.

Day has related that the academy was a last-ditch effort by his desperate mother, Dening, to get him away from his drinking and drug use.

That kind of candor is rare among top-level professional athletes.

"All I'm doing is telling you the truth," Day said on his recent visit. "There are times when you have to be politically correct, but 99 percent of the time I'm honesty telling you what I'm feeling and what I'm thinking.

"I'm not going to lie or try to hide things because of who I am. I think people should be able to talk to me like they're talking to their mom or dad. I don't care if you have a 9-to-5 job or no job at all; everyone has an interesting story."

Like a parent, Swatton marvels at watching Day's personal growth. Since the time a hurt and troubled kid showed up at the academy, the two have spent little time apart. With Swatton also serving as caddie, there isn't another relationship on tour quite like it.

"He's one of those once-in-a-lifetime people that you find," Day said. "He just cares, no matter what. Even before I was a professional, it didn't matter what I did. If I fired him tomorrow, he wouldn't be angry. He would say, 'OK, you've got to do what you need to do, and I'm here for you no matter what.

"It's not about the money or any of that stuff. He cares about me and my goals in life. It's more about love than anything else."

Many times Swatton has been asked what Day would have done without him. But there is the other side. Swatton, who is married with no children, had his own life and goals, and he essentially gave those up to stick with Day.

"I always tried to move forward in my career and life, to do something new and exciting," Swatton said. "I'm sure I would have been involved with the Australian junior golf program and trying to advance it."

He just happened take on that task in one package, with Day, much like countryman Adam Scott, inspiring a new generation of Aussie golfers the way Greg Norman did before him.

Swatton was savvy, guiding Day up a progressive ladder of competition, moving him early on to older age groups for better competition. By the time Day reached Junior World he was ready to take on the older boys.

The same held true once Day turned pro at 18 and came to America to play on the Nationwide Tour (now When at 19 he captured a tournament in Ohio in 2007, Day became the youngest champion of a PGA Tour-sanctioned event.

He earned his PGA Tour card after that season, and in early 2008 Day was back at Torrey Pines as a professional -- only 3 1/2 years after winning Junior World.

By that time, Day had added another key member to his tight-knit team.

Swatton and Day frequented a storefront Irish pub, Mavis Winkles, in Twinsburg, Ohio, where, yes, they hold a twins festival every year. Working at the pub was a bubbly, 19-year-old brunette, Ellie Harvey, a girl from rural Ohio who was going to college and sharing a one-bedroom apartment with no TV.

Ellie took notice of the "cute guy with the Australian accent," but the then-17-year-old Day was too shy to talk to her. It was more than a year later that Jason got up the nerve to ask her on a date. They went to Applbee's, chaperoned by Swatton, of course.

Ellie new nothing about golf, and Day needled her for wearing a collared shirt to her first pro tournament because she thought it was required of spectators.

Day, who had only one serious girlfriend before Ellie, always said he wanted marriage and kids early. He and Ellie wed in 2009.

"It's funny. We've been doing this for so long together now, I have a really good sense of him and what he's thinking and feeling," Ellie Day said last week as the family packed up their bus to come to San Diego from their West Coast base in Palm Desert.

"Every guy is different in how he wants to deal with his golf. I don't typically talk to him about it a lot. If he wants to talk to me about it, I want to be there for him. But he'll talk to everyone else all dang day about golf, and not me."

Dash was born in July 2012, and everyone around them say he is a carbon copy of his father -- fun-loving, intense, energetic, headstrong.

"They're both my kids," Ellie said with a laugh. "They're interchangeable.

"When Dash gets mad, it's a crazy mad. When he's happy, he's the sweetest, loving little boy."

Their second child, daughter Lucy, arrived in mid-November, and Swatton said he marvels at how Day manages the responsibilities. He points out that among Day's younger rivals -- Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler -- none are married or have kids.

"We always discuss that," Swatton said. "There are two ways you can go. You can do it all when you're young and single or go the other route. Family can be a distraction, but it's also a balance.

"He's got a lot of work and life commitments. That's why I'm super proud of him as a dad and as player, but I'm most proud of him as a human being."