SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- Two years ago, Jason Day led the Masters with three holes to play on the final day when he made back-to-back bogeys to finish third.
“I remember him coming off the course saying he kind of choked,” recalls wife Ellie. “That killed me because he was so disappointed in himself.”
On the course, it was the toughest loss of Day’s career.
“It took me a little bit to get over,” he said. “But it was more frustrating because I know that just from what -- if I had my head on now, back then, in 2013, I honestly believe I could have finished it off.”
Sunday, he finally did.
Day shot 5-under 67 for a three-stroke victory over Jordan Spieth to win the PGA Championship and earn his first career major title. His four-day total of 20-under 268 at Whistling Straits surpassed the previous 72-hole low in a major of 19-under-par, set by Tiger Woods at the 2000 Open Championship.
The irony is that the 27-year-old who had been overcoming his whole life didn’t need to on the final afternoon at Whistling Straits. Day never led by less than two over the final 18 holes and played a game of power and precision that was reminiscent of the guy whose scoring record he broke.
For the week, Day hit at least 10 of 14 fairways each round and no fewer than 13 greens a day, including 15 on Sunday when the pressure was at its highest alongside Spieth, who was trying to become just the third player to win three majors in the same year and was one bad hole from being in position to pursue the Grand Slam in the year’s final major.
Spieth moved to No. 1 in the world with his runner-up finish but it was Day who was the best player that put a submission hold on Whistling Straits and the rest of the field.
“It would have been very tough for me to kind of come back from a major championship such as this if I didn't finish it off,” Day said. “Even though I feel like I'm a positive person, I think that kind of in the back of my mind something would have triggered and I would have gone maybe I can't really finish it off.”
Instead, that was exactly what he did on the par-5 16th, where he split the fairway with a 316-yard missile that was followed by a 4-iron from 227 yards that found the left side of the green to set up an easy two-putt birdie to keep Spieth -- who had also birdied the hole after a ridiculously difficult bunker shot from an awkward stance -- at bay.
“He's going to be around competition-wise in major championships for a long, long time and he's going to be the heavy favorite going forward,” Day said. “But to be able to hold him off, knowing that he's going to be the best player in the world now, the way I played, it felt great.”
The shiny 2 1/2 foot tall, 27-pound shiny silver Wanamaker Trophy perched next to him was also a long way from where Day came from.
Born to an Irish Australian father and a Filipino mother with two other siblings, Day took up golf at age six before his dad Alvin died of stomach cancer six years later.
Day’s life soon went into a tailspin.
His parents were so poor that his mother would cut the lawn using a knife because they couldn’t afford to fix the lawnmower. For hot showers, they would use kettles to heat the water because they couldn’t pay for a proper water heater.
Before he was even a teenager, Day had fallen in with the wrong crowd, too. He was drinking by age 12 and regularly getting in fights.
Still, he was a talented amateur golfer and the death of his father had a profound impact. So did Colin Swatton, Day’s current caddie and coach whom he first met at Hills International College and considers the father he lost when he was a child.
The early days of pro golf weren’t without their share of bumps, though.
A year after meeting his future wife at a restaurant in Twinsburg, Ohio, Day turned pro at age 18 but still had plenty of growing up to do.
“We were both so young figuring everything out,” said Ellie, two years her husband’s elder. “People always thought he was so mature but he did really immature things back then. He played video games all the time. He was still throwing golf clubs and I’d see him cussing on the golf course.
“He had phases where he would almost give up. One year, maybe our first year on the PGA TOUR, he just got used to missing cuts and thinking we’re going home on the weekend.”
Slowly, though, Day started to fulfill the promise he had shown as a top amateur Down Under.
He recorded his first win on the PGA TOUR at the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship in 2010 and the following year he finished second in the Masters and U.S. Open. Two years later, Day’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, son Dash.
But more close calls followed (the 2013 Masters and U.S. Open, this year’s Open Championship) and Day was often saddled with the backhanded compliment of best player to never win a major. There were injuries and ailments, too -- thumb, ankle, vertigo, etc.
Then late last year Day started to take his talent and job even more seriously. He changed his diet, workout and routine.
“You get two kinds of athletes, those you have to hold back because they just want to run and those you have to hit from behind,” said Cornell Driessen, the physio Day hired just over a year ago to deal with degenerative spine disease and whip his body into shape so it could handle his strength and hip speed. “He would train, but he wasn’t strong enough to do what he was doing. The spine took a lot of shock.”
Day was the one in shock, however, earlier this year when he suffered a bout of vertigo that sent him crashing to the turf at Chambers Bay. He was tied for the lead going into the last day and dragged himself through it but faded into a tie for ninth.
A month later at St. Andrews, he left a putt to make a playoff short on the final hole. He described it as “pure frustration.”
Sunday at Whistling Straits, though, was all emotion. Day wiped tears from his eyes with a towel before tapping in for par on the final hole and later got emotional talking about his wife, son and the journey.
“If I didn't have that failure, I wouldn't be standing here today with the trophy,” Day said. “Some people get there quicker than others, some people make it look easier than others, and I'm just glad that it's finally happened, because it was kind of wearing on me a little bit. It doesn't help the media, hearing about it all the time. But I'm glad to take my name off that list and move forward from here. Now I can just focus on what I need to do and try and finish the year off strong.”