News & Opinion

Day shows grit in surge to top at Masters

ason Day was at his favorite golf tournament Thursday, about to head to the first tee for his early-afternoon tee time at the 83rd Masters, when he bent down to plant a kiss on his 3-year-old girl, Lucy

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jason Day was at his favorite golf tournament Thursday, about to head to the first tee for his early-afternoon tee time at the 83rd Masters, when he bent down to plant a kiss on his 3-year-old girl, Lucy.

And, bam, just like that, Day’s back went out on him.

Now, there’s a decent-sized list of players who haven’t made it to the first tee at Augusta National because of injury through the years. Two years ago, Dustin Johnson had won three consecutive starts when he slipped on a set of stairs in his rental home on the eve of the Masters, twisted his back, and couldn’t tee it up the next day. Day himself had to WD at Augusta in 2012 with a bum ankle, and Tony Finau nearly followed him with a similar injury last year (he played, finishing T-10). Tiger Woods missed two consecutive starts (and three of four) trying to work his way back from injuries before returning to the Masters in April 2018.

Players have missed various PGA Tour starts through the years by picking up luggage the wrong way, or cutting fingers with kitchen knives, or getting into fender-benders, or even breaking ribs while sneezing (Gesundheit, Rory Sabbatini!).

Missing the grandest major of them all because of one innocent kiddie smooch? It’s enough to make a man who has worked most of his life to secure a green jacket go searching instead for a straitjacket.

“The first thing that went through my head yesterday was immediate frustration and disappointment, just knowing that I've actually been trying to do the right things, and I feel like things were progressing nicely,” Day said. “And then all of a sudden, it just went out.”

Day didn’t know whether he would finish three holes, six holes, nine holes, but he managed the pain through an opening 70, a pretty stout effort, all considered. Still, when he returned home to the family motorhome late Thursday (or, as he calls it, "the bus"), Day clearly was down, knowing another year might pass him by in Augusta. He was moping. His wife, Ellie, a mother to their three children, quickly, sternly took care of that.

“It’s the Masters,” she told him. “You need to suck it up.”

Sometimes, wives say the darnedest things.

Jason Day (right) endures a balky back to shoot 67 and grab a share of the midway lead in the Masters.

Day got the message. Hey, you’re here only once a year, so get some work done on the back, get better, and pick it up a little. Day did so on Friday. He made six birdies, taking care of business at each of Augusta National’s four par-5 holes, and shot 5-under 67 (scores). As darkness fell, he held a share of the lead at 7-under 137 heading to the weekend, part of a stacked, star-laden leaderboard that includes four other major winners: Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott. Another shot back are Woods and Johnson. Nine players are separated by a shot. Announcer Jim Nantz called this board “bunched and brilliant.”

There’s a perception across the PGA Tour, and across golf fandom, that Day can be “soft” when it comes to injuries getting the best of him. Problem is, he has dealt with a bad back dating to his early teens. The back cooperated for most of last year, but this season, not so much. He had to withdraw at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month (his ninth Tour WD) despite getting epidural injections in his back to ease the pain. He knew that had he played at Bay Hill, he’d be competing in four consecutive weeks, which might not be the best formula, physically, to get ready for the complete test that the Masters presents. Golfers and bad backs are not dream marriages. This go-around, Day called his pain “5 out of 10.” Had it transgressed at all when he headed out Thursday, Day said he would have had to walk off.

“This is not my first time where my back has gone out,” Day said, “so I kind of know the protocol of trying to get myself back into at least ‘game’ mode to get out there and play.”

Day wished to clarify that the words he heard from his wife – “Suck it up” – weren’t meant to be a scolding. Instead, Ellie’s words were stated to inspire her hubby, to fire him up.

“She was trying to get me ready for today,” Day said, “and she ultimately did.”

Day, the 2015 PGA champion and an Australian, confided to former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell of New Zealand earlier this week that he felt 31 going on 50. That was before his back went south. So Day, essentially, is day-to-day, not knowing what will greet him health-wise as he takes 10 minutes to climb out of bed to start his mornings.

Having a bad back dominates Day’s days. In the mornings, he first needs to get his rib cage shifted back into position (“This is my trainer talking, not me,” he said, as he went through his routine), and make sure his shoulders and hips are aligned correctly. To get the ribcage situated just so, he gets into certain positions and then blows air into balloons. (The upside: Day soon could become a huge hit at kids’ parties!)

This all takes 20 or 30 minutes, and then he’ll see his chiropractor for 10 to 30 minutes, and then he’s off to warm up and eventually play. After rounds, he sees his chiro again in the evening for one more exercise session. Sometimes he's icing the back, which he did Thursday, causing him to miss out on son Dash and his buddy Caleb Watson (Bubba's boy) as the two hit golf balls together.

All of this back work and prevention just to be able to chase a little white ball around. Oh, and to chase a green jacket, too. Friday at Augusta, Ellie chose not to take little Lucy over to the practice green to see her daddy, and that’s likely a routine to be followed through the weekend.

Thirty-six holes to play at Augusta National, and Jason Day is right there, balky back and all. He knows the payoff that is dangling out there for a great weekend. For that, he'll suck it up.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62