SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — In his eighth year on the PGA Tour, Jason Day reached a major pinnacle of his career by winning the PGA Championship.
And he could be sure that Tiger Woods was watching.
“Game over, very happy for Jason. Great dude and well deserved. Hats off to Jordan, incredible season. Calling it early,” Woods tweeted, adding in another tweet that he was watching from his new restaurant in South Florida. Always a commercial plug.
Day and Woods have become good friends on the golf course, but the fact Woods tuned in to the final round at Whistling Straits brought to mind Day’s rookie season when he was filled with big talent, big goals and some big talk.
Going into that year, he was asked during a conference call with Australian writers if he thought Woods was aware of him.
“I can’t say for sure, but I think he is,” said Day, who was 20 at the time. “If I was him, I would be. I watch everyone. He watches a lot of golf. He has so much time. He played 16 events — what does he do with his time? He’d be aware of me. He’d be saying, ‘Here’s another kid coming up.'”
It was a slow climb.
Now 27, he idolized the work ethic of Woods when he was growing up in Australia and honed that powerful swing under Colin Swatton, his current caddie. No one ever questioned his ability, only the trophies. It took him three years to win his first PGA Tour event at the Byron Nelson Championship, and four more years before he picked up another title at the Match Play Championship.
Along the way were more nagging injuries than he cares to remember, along with whispers that he was an underachiever.
All that has been put to rest.
This is a new Day, who has matured into one of the top three players in the world and figures to stay there.
“As long as I am healthy, I feel like I’m going to be there a long time,” Day said. “I still want to accomplish that No. 1 goal of mine, which is to be the best player in the world. I’m still motivated and still very hungry for that, even after this win. Stuff like this is just the icing on top of the cake when you work so hard, and being able to achieve something like this.”
Not much in life has come easily for Day.
His father died of cancer when Day was 12, and if not for the sacrifices of his mother to get him to a golf academy, and the nurturing of Swatton, there’s no telling where he would be now. Day once shopped for used clothes at a store where for $5 he could stuff as much as he could into a bag.
“I remember not having a hot water tank, so we had to use a kettle for hot showers,” he said. “We would put the kettle on and go have a shower, and then my mom would come bring three or four kettles in, just to heat them up. And it would take five, 10 minutes for every kettle to heat up.”
He had every reason to expect a hard road along the rugged terrain of Whistling Straits on Sunday afternoon.
Day had a share of the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open, where he showed remarkable strength to even finish while coping with symptoms of vertigo. He faded to a 74. A month later, he shared another 54-hole at St. Andrews and missed the playoff at the British Open by one shot when he left a 30-foot birdie attempt a foot short.
This time, he had least had a two-shot margin, along with pressure not to let another chance get away. He feared there would be emotional scars if he didn’t finish this one. And if that wasn’t enough, he was paired with Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth, the new No. 1 player in golf.
Ultimately, that’s what made it so special. Spieth’s plan was to catch Day somewhere along the front nine, though he could tell early that Day was smashing the driver and would be tough to beat. Day really put the Texan in a hole by making a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 7.
No one got closer than two shots to Day the entire round.
“He played like he had won seven or eight majors before,” Spieth said.
The highest praise for Day came in the scoring trailer, when he said Spieth told him, “There’s nothing I could do.”
“It’s a good feeling when someone like Jordan, who is playing phenomenal golf right now, says that,” Day said. “Because it means that he left everything out there on the golf course and my play this week was just so much better — well, better than everyone else. And that feels good to me, because I was the last man standing.”
The Wanamaker Trophy was all he wanted. Only after it was over did Day realize he had broken a major championship record by finishing at 20 under par. The previous mark belonged to Woods, who was 19 under when he won the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews.
Woods watched him do it Sunday.
He saw a mature, married man with a son and another child due in November, and someone now with six PGA Tour wins that include a major.