As if there weren't enough frightening rivals near the top of men's golf, and as if the world doesn't keep churning out postpubescent threats to crowd the crowd, here comes a 35-year-old bygone Australian star right out of the back-pain crypt. If you had forgotten about him, you're forgiven. If you don't find his win Sunday with a closing 62 at the Byron Nelson incredible, you might be irredeemable.
As this kind and decent man's career ground down from 51 weeks at No. 1 between September 2015 and February 2017, all the way to his past 10 majors with three cuts, four DNPs and three way-down-the-boards in 2020-22, look at what became of his rarefied mind because of his horrified back.
"My thought process was to go, 'OK, What's my contract minimum that I have to play?'" he said Sunday. "It's 20 events. Can't practice Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday really. If I'm playing the pro-am then I'll struggle to get through that, that's fine, I'll get through that. Get in Thursday, Friday, if I make the cut, great, and if I don't, that's a tick off the tournament list. To have that mind-set, to even just think about the way that I was thinking, just to try and get through a tournament because of how much pain I was in, it's not a healthy way of playing golf in general, not a healthy way of just living in general."
That man just won something elusive even for those with pristine backs. In the recent arc of his story - seven top-10 finishes this season - it seemed plausible, but in the long arc, it seemed monumental. Somewhere in his aching morass he had become enough of an afterthought that it seemed he must have plunged to some four-digit ranking you hadn't bothered to check. The idea he never dipped below No. 175 (last October) seems a further reflection of his unusual know-how.
Now look who's here: He pops up before a microphone at the 105th PGA Championship on a Wednesday morning with his black ski cap and his pleasing personality. He won the 97th PGA in 2015 at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, and he's back to No. 20 in a world in which 15 or 20 players can make you feel insufficient on any day. He has got his texts in his phone from Tiger Woods from Sunday even if he can't relay those because those contain words of inspired profanity amid the heartfelt encouragement, after some years where they would "text each other constantly about just trying to push each other."
He tells again how he had thought of retiring.
"We all look at Tiger's 2019 win at Augusta," he said, "but that's Tiger, and he's a bit of a freak. For me personally, I thought it was going to be one of those things where I just had a great career, just, 'Injuries got in the way and took him out of the game.'"
Now the man who once won a preposterous eight times within 15 months in 2015-16, and thrice in five weeks in late summer 2015, earned PGA Tour win No. 13 five crummy years after win No. 12. He got it because he did remember the art of winning.
"I thought it showed great resilience," said Dottie Pepper, the former pro and current on-course TV broadcaster with her rare window upon the best golfers. "And great honesty, too, that he was so forthcoming in talking about him kind of being at the end of his rope, and saying, 'I hurt, and maybe I don't want to do this anymore.'" And to be able to really evaluate what his heart said, what his body said, how to make them both become friends again. And he did that.
"And I thought - he had said on Saturday night that he had a number out there, it was 20 under. Well, he got halfway through the back nine, it was clear that 20 under wasn't going to be good enough, and he never let his foot off the gas pedal. So I think that takes a real command of your emotions and of your head, to get to a number and keep going, which is exactly what he did."
He needed all of that 23 under, what with Si Woo Kim shooting a closing 63 and C.T. Pan a closing 62 among other worries. Then he said he felt calm all the way and so, "Yeah, I don't know how to explain it," given he missed the cut in Charlotte the previous week and got to Dallas-Fort Worth "kind of fed up with having to go over a lot of technical thoughts with my swing."
While "technical thoughts" do seem wretched, Day had seen worse. Through recent years in unwanted quiet, he worked with his coach, Chris Como, on increments that would leave most humans either flustered or scramming away screaming. "The first year and a half," he said Sunday, "we actually just worked on body motion to actually try and swing it in a way where I could actually feel decent."
The capacity for that grind after more than $50 million in career earnings might provide an utmost glimpse of the elite-athlete mind. You can't explain it away in just that Day and wife Ellie await their fifth child. College tuitions don't cost that much. He does have two trainers, so there's that.
"Injuries in competitive sports are no joke," Day reminded on Wednesday, his gaudy career having groaned with the back and some bouts with vertigo. He suggested it "almost feels like you're handcuffed when you do have an injury, and you're playing against the best players in the world trying to compete and win. That can be frustrating, disappointing, and it can almost be a feeling of depression sometimes just because of the amount of work that you're putting in. It feels like you're going and working 150% just to get 10% out of it."
But if you can handle the atrocious bit by bit, maybe there's a voilà up ahead out there somewhere: "It's like anything," he said. "Once the momentum train starts ... "
"He's obviously set out and really worked hard on his golf swing the last couple years," Adam Scott, fellow Aussie and 2013 Masters champion, said in Texas, "and he's stayed incredibly patient, I think, and chipped away at it and got it to a place where he may say he's not satisfied, but it's looking pretty good. The validation of sticking with it, I think, is something at this point that he'll take a lot out of, and when you're as talented as Jason, the sky's the limit, once the confidence comes through winning like that."
"Now I've got to recognize and understand," Day said. "That the little things that I did to get here at this point were the steppingstones for that win, and I can't not do that in the future."
Now he's going to play the Oak Hill course on which he finished tied for eighth at the 2013 PGA Championship at age 25, and he's going to do it without playing a practice round at an age 35 that can seem like a 45 given all his drudgery. That might be a reason to toss him off a betting slip, but he knows more than most what he should and should not do. Among human beings and their relationships with their own musculoskeletal systems, here's one of the keener ones out there, all the way to a closing, winning, hardship-defying 62.