CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jason Day calls it a plateau, these doldrums he’s in. But a plateau suggests reaching a certain height and having maintained that altitude without ascending any higher.
Day was No. 1 in the world in 2016, and now he’s No. 7. Truthfully, he’s slipped from any plateau on which he might have been resting.
He comes into the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club flying decidedly under the radar (tee times: http://bit.ly/1yf8r8M). No one mentions him among this week’s favorites, and that’s because his form has been no better than mediocre, particularly given where he was not so long ago.
In 2015, he won five times on the PGA Tour – half of his career total of 10 victories – including the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. It was a performance of such surgical power that it looked as if he would be unbeatable for some time to come. That view was borne out by his two FedEx Cup playoff victories shortly thereafter, which vaulted him to world No. 1 and was disputed by no one.
And with three victories in 2016, Day built an upside that seemed unlimited. But in September of that year, he withdrew during the second round of the Tour Championship, citing a back injury. He didn’t play again until the 2017 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
It was a disturbing continuation of a series of injuries incurred by Day, who just couldn’t seem to stay healthy for any long period of time. In 2013, an ankle injury prompted him to withdraw during the second round of the Masters. A thumb injury meant a two-month absence in 2014. And in 2015, there was the dramatic scene of Day trying to finish a round at the U.S. Open while battling a case of vertigo.
This year, his health is finally good, but life’s reality hit him head-on. He walked off the course after six holes of his match with Pat Perez in March at the WGC Dell Match Play because Day simply couldn’t focus on golf. The reason: his mother, Dening Day, was suffering from lung cancer.
Day took some time off from the Tour and flew his mother from Australia to his home in Columbus, Ohio, to undergo surgery. Doctors removed a tumor of about 3-4 centimeters, allowing Day’s mother to avoid chemotherapy.
But the ordeal took its toll on Day’s golf. He hasn’t won in 2017, and his best finish was a runner-up at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He missed the cut miserably at the U.S. Open and didn’t contend at the Masters or British Open.
“Unfortunately, this year, my short game has been pretty poor,” Day said Wednesday. “My putting has been the same, and that's kind of added a little bit more pressure on the rest of my game. Trying to hit greens and trying to hit fairways, there's been a lot more pressure because I’m putting poorly.
“So I’ve been working very, very hard, trying to stay very disciplined with trying to stick to the process of getting better with my putting again and all throughout the whole game.
“But I’m looking forward to this week because I feel like I’m starting to turn the corner with regards to this plateau, and hopefully from there, I have a good finish. Because really, this has been a very, very poor year for me. So hopefully, I can turn it around and start playing some good golf here.”
Day’s fall from No. 1 in the world also has served as motivation. He thinks he still has the ability to return to the top spot.
“It annoys and motivates me at the same time, to be honest,” he said. “Because I know how good I can be, because I have got to No. 1 in the world.
“Right now … it is frustrating to me because I’m sitting there and I’m like, My game is not where it should be. I’m not doing the right things on the course. I really haven’t had the greatest year. You’re not panicking or anything; you’re just wondering why. You’re up at night thinking about, OK, what do I need to do to get back to that winning form?
“Once I minimize the distractions that I’ve had in my life and can … single-focus on golf, then everything will take care of itself.”
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf