AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jason Day's love affair with the Masters began when he watched the tournament as a kid growing up in Australia. It grew in 2011, when he finished tied for second in his first trip to Augusta National Golf Club.
And it heightened two years later when he led after 36 holes and ended up finishing third, even though he watched his fellow countryman, Adam Scott, become the first Australian to win the Masters.
"I feel comfortable around this course," Day said. "I know it sets up well for me. It's a golf course that I can compete and play well and win."
Much will be expected of Day when the 80th Masters, the first major tournament of the PGA season, begins Thursday. He has ascended to the No. 1 spot in the world rankings after winning his past two starts – the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Dell Match Play – and six of his past 13 dating to last season.
Included in that dazzling stretch is a PGA Championship victory, his first major title, when he posted the lowest score to par (20 under) recorded in a major.
Day, though, is trying to play down some of the expectations, even going so far as to say Tuesday, "To be honest, I don't think I'm the favorite this week."
When was the previous time the world's top player said that before a major championship? Especially one as white-hot as Day?
Day wants to tamp down all external and internal expectation and not try so hard to win the Masters, something he said affected him each of the past two years. He finished 20th in 2014 and 28th in 2015.
"I've got to understand that the first few years, I just enjoyed myself," Day said. "I had a lot of fun here. It's something I've always wanted to play in as a young kid, and I enjoy coming here and I enjoy being on the grounds and playing the tournament. And then as time went on, everyone would keep on asking me about, you know, when are you going to win it and how are you going to win it and all that stuff.
"I guess I thought about it and just, OK, I've got to kind of force it this year, and that's when I started missing stuff and making mistakes and mental errors. I kind of shot myself out of tournaments."
Rory McIlroy, the No. 3 player in the world, said his desire to win the Masters and become the fifth player to capture golf's Grand Slam got in his way a year ago when he played the first 27 holes in 3-over par. Once McIlroy settled down, he was 15 under on his final 45 holes and finished fourth behind Jordan Spieth.
"I think part of that was having so much expectation and thinking of the Grand Slam and thinking of the Masters and thinking of all this where I needed to just take a step back and relax and go out and try and play my own game," McIlroy said. "I feel like the first 27 holes last year really cost me the tournament."
Day has tried not to do too much since coming to Augusta Thursday. He's played nine-hole practice rounds every day since Saturday, alternating between the front nine and back nine, and will play in the Par-3 Contest today. He said it's very easy to come to Augusta National and practice too much because "it's just as amazing facility to practice on." Instead, he will rely on what he has been doing on his incredible run and not get caught up in getting over-hyped for the Masters.
That, though, might be hard to do with so much anticipation of a showdown between him and the two players immediately behind him in the world rankings, Spieth and McIlroy. The three have won five of the past six majors.
"I've just got to kind of relax, understand that I have a certain process that I go through each tournament to get ready to compete and I need to stick to that," Day said. "Don't do anything more, don't do anything less, and from there just try and go out and execute."
Then he added, "I'm not going to say it's going to be different. I'm just going to go through my normal game plan and just play, try and play the way I have been, and hopefully I'll give it a good run at the end of the week."
And maybe take his love affair to a new level.
This article was written by Gerry Dulac from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.