News & Opinion

Latest ailment clouds Jason Day’s future

Recurring back troubles end Australian’s homecoming at the Presidents Cup before it could begin

Jason Day must be sick and tired of being sick and tired. For something like the umpteenth time, Day is forced by his body to withdraw from an event because of injury or illness.

Ernie Els used a captain’s pick on Day for next week’s Presidents Cup in his home country of Australia, but Day announced recently that he had pulled out because of recurring back issues. He was replaced on the team by Byeong Hun An of South Korea (“In other golf news,” Dec. 1).

WGC Dell Match Play 2019
Jason Day, a former No. 1-ranked player in the world, struggles with a balky back and other physical ailments.

Day says he’s been dealing with back issues since he was 13 years old. Anyone who has ever felt back pain knows how debilitating it can be. Move the wrong way and it can take your breath. The worst part might be its unpredictability. Ask Tiger Woods. You feel perfectly fine one day, and you’re in bed the next.

“Sometimes I wake up and I feel like I'm 50,” Day said in April when he injured his back just before the first round of the Masters. “Sometimes I wake up and I feel like I'm 70. And sometimes I wake up and feel like I'm 18 again. It just comes and goes, and that's just how it is.”

But for the former No. 1 player in the world, the coming and going not only has affected the trajectory of his career, it just might one day cut the whole thing short, years before it’s time. Day is only 32. He has won 12 times on the PGA Tour, including the 2015 PGA Championship, the same year he ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time. To date, the PGA is his only major championship.

Day is an admitted underachiever, and much of the blame can be shouldered by his injuries, his illnesses and the uncertainty of each. At the Masters, just before he started his first round, he bent over at the practice putting green to give a kiss to his 3-year-old daughter, Lucy. He felt the pain immediately.

He had been getting cortisone shots for his back after he withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March after playing just six holes of the opening round. He said that he hurt his back practicing at TPC Sawgrass, and an MRI revealed a tear in the L4-L5 discs.

At the Masters, he received treatment on the course for his back and wound up tied for the lead after 36 holes. He finished the tournament tied for fifth, two shots behind Woods.

It necessitates the question: How would he have played with a healthy back?

Last year, Day had shoulder issues at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship but played through them. In 2016, he walked off the course after eight holes of the final round of the BMW Championship because of his back. Two weeks later, his back caused him to pull out of the Tour Championship during the second round.

His most famous illness occurred at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. An attack of vertigo drove him to the ground on the final hole of his second round. Amazingly, he finished the hole and wound up tied for the lead after three rounds. He ultimately tied for ninth.

Day revealed early in 2016 that he had another vertigo episode in Saturday’s third round of the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews. He decided to keep quiet.

"It came back, but I didn't tell anyone about it because it would be a lot more questions that would happen, and it wasn't as severe," Day said. "I was a little dizzy that day, and it happened the Saturday of the Open Championship. I just kept my mouth shut about it because I knew that it would open another can of worms, and I didn't want to talk about it."

In a 2018 interview with Golf Digest, Day said he was on medication for a year-and-a-half for the vertigo but cut off the prescription. “Every now and then I'll get a bout of [vertigo], and it's the worst thing ever,” he said. “It's actually happened this year maybe two or three times, but it was only for nine holes. I didn't say a word to anyone about it other than my caddie or my wife.”

Day missed two months in 2014 after he suffered an injury to his left thumb caused by hitting a tree root at the Masters and thought it might have threatened his career.

Day is fit, trim and strong and, when healthy, he hits the ball prodigious distances. However, it appears that he has only one speed – all-out – and some players and observers have expressed concern that the violent nature of his swing can be pointed to as a cause for his frequent injuries.

“I can understand people having concern, or someone giving analysis,” Day said in 2018. “But let me put it this way: If you had a cough, and I said it means you've got the flu, well, how do you know?

“It's the same way with the swing. How do you know what someone's body is doing, if they have enough rotation or limiting rotation? You don't know what their body chemistry is. Someone might have bad hips, so they have to swing a certain way. It works the same the other way. So, when it comes to people commenting on a golf swing, I understand it, but I don't agree with it. I just laugh, because they're blowing smoke.”

Still, Day hasn’t played well in more than a year. His most recent victory came at the 2018 Wells Fargo Championship. He has sunk to No. 31 in the world ranking and didn’t qualify for the International Presidents Cup team on points. Els picked Day because it didn’t seem as if he had a choice.

Now, Els’ choice was made for him. Given Day’s physical condition, it appears that his choices going forward could very well be limited, at best.