For as much as Jason Day had been winning, capturing the 2016 Players Championship, Day’s seventh title in his last 17 tournaments, was no ordinary victory.
Combined with his two Dell Match Play victories—both World Golf Championships titles—and his seminal win at the 2015 PGA Championship, giving him the major championship he had long desired, a win at The Players only seemed to punctuate what everybody knew: Day was the best player in the game, and he had the ranking to prove it.
The win at TPC Sawgrass last May was only his 10th overall PGA Tour title, but nine of those victories had come in a three-year period, seven during a scalding hot stretch where he was winning 41 percent of his starts.
“I look at that 10 PGA TOUR wins, and I say to myself, that’s not enough, and it isn’t enough for me. It’s just 10. I want more than 10,” Day said following his victory, noting how far behind he still was of Tiger Woods’ 79 wins and even Phil Mickelson’s 42. “I want to be able to be looked back on and [people] know that [I] was one of the greats in the game.”
Day is one of the greats in the game, he has been considered the greatest in the game. But the Ranking says he’s not the greatest right now two days before the start of The Players. That honor, according to the Official World Golf Ranking, belongs to American Dustin Johnson, with Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy No. 2. For the moment, Day will have to settle for third.
One of the reasons Day has slipped two notches in the Ranking is that it’s been 52 full weeks since he last won a PGA TOUR tournament. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, that Players victory was Day’s last title.
He had strong tournaments at the end of the 2015-16 season, finishing runner-up to Jimmy Walker at the PGA Championship, tying for third at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and tying for fourth at The Barclays, the first of four FedExCup Playoffs events. Yet he added no titles to his resume, and withdrawals at both the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship due to ongoing back issues put a damper on the conclusion of his season. So far in 2017, Day’s best finish is a tie for fifth at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a third-round 75 ending any discussion about him winning along the Monterey Peninsula.
“I came close at the PGA (Championship) last year. I could sense that being No. 1 and all that stuff was getting pretty hard, mentally more so than physically,” Day explained. “As you go through your career, your priorities kind of change back and forth. With what had happened earlier this year, with some off-course stuff, my mind was kind of elsewhere, as you probably could imagine.”
That “off-course stuff: to which Day alluded is his mother’s ongoing battle with cancer, a diagnosis Day announced in March at the Dell Match Play when he withdrew from the tournament to be with his mom.
Day’s back is better, and he has seen his mother make positive strides in her fight against cancer. He sees the opportunity starting this week to “rebuild to get back to the top of the world.”
Added Day, “That’s what I’m trying to focus on—getting back to that winning form, getting back to the workload I was doing—and hopefully the results will come after that.”
During his rise to No. 1 in the world, when Day was winning those seven tournaments, he said, “I honestly felt that there was no one better than me in the game, and it didn’t matter who it was, I was going to beat them. That was my mentality going into every tournament through that stretch. I had the self-belief in myself, and that’s the one thing I probably struggle with the most out of my whole game, the actual self-belief. When it’s there, I usually play some very, very good golf.”
Day enters The Players trying to prove that his 63-66-73-71, four-round showing around TPC Sawgrass a year ago, was what fans should expect going forward and not his two missed cuts and his tie for 19th in his three previous Players’ starts before the victory.
“It’s pretty special to come back as the defending champion,” added Day who recorded the fifth start-to-finish win in tournament history and first since Hal Sutton’s wire-to-wire job in 2000. “The course is in tremendous condition right now. With the upcoming weather we have, with how firm the greens are going to get, how fast the greens are going to get, it should be a tough championship.
“I’m definitely looking forward to coming back here and defending,” continued Day, who will play his first two rounds as part of a threesome that features former Players’ champions. Joining Day at 8:16 EDT Thursday morning will be Henrik Stenson (2009) and Rickie Fowler (2015). “It’s going to be a tough competition trying to beat these guys.”
(Photo and story courtesy of the PGA Tour)