Newsmaker: Jason Day

The Australian golfer won his first Major title when he clinched the PGA Championship in the United States this week. His rags-to-riches journey has been punctuated by tragedy.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

In 2006, Jason Day had a single dollar to his name. On Sunday, he enjoyed the biggest payday of his life with a cheque for US$1.8 million (Dh6.6m) for winning the first Major of his career, the US PGA Championship.

Day’s story has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood movie: family tragedies and being near financially destitute before rising to the highest echelons of golf, with an old-fashioned love story sandwiched in between.

But his Philippine-born mother Dening has no doubt the benefits of the game of golf to her son are much more than merely a rich bank balance. After watching his victory on television back in Australia with a score of 20 under par, a record not even managed by the likes of Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus in the history of the Majors, she said simply: “Golf saved him.”

It’s no underestimation: her son nearly went off the rails, having fallen in with the wrong crowd at the age of 12.

To this day, his mother admits she gave him too much slack – the catalyst for his downward spiral after the death of his father Alvin, who worked in the local abattoir near the family home in Beaudesert, Queensland, a small town with a population of about 6,000 people.

Golf brought together a father and son who otherwise endured a tempestuous relationship. Day was introduced to the game through a three-wood his father had found at the local dump – hardly the ideal piece of equipment to learn the game.

At the age of 6, Day Jr was taken to the local golf club at Beaudesert, a town whose previous claim to fame was being the hometown of Neville Bonner, the first indigenous Australian to become a member of ­parliament.

When his father died, the one constant in his life was his ability to swing a golf club.

In a post-PGA victory interview with CNN, Day recalled his childhood: “I was getting in fights at schools and I was drinking at a young age. You know, when I lost my dad, there was no one there to be the disciplinarian, and we kind of ran amok.

“My sister ran away for four years, she was living on the streets. I didn’t know where she was and then I was getting in trouble. My dad was very rough with us. We were kind of a broken family after my dad passed away because of all that had ­happened.”

But such was his mother’s faith in her son’s talent that she gambled it all on the game, selling the family home and sending her son off to boarding school.

And all this despite being a poor family for whom money was so tight his mother would cut the lawn with a knife – she was unable to pay to have the family lawnmower repaired – and had to boil water to ensure hot showers in the winter.

Both mother and son admit it was a gamble that paid off, and it was to prove the single turning point in a remarkable career, bringing Day in contact with the school’s golf coach, Colin Swatton, who went on to be Day’s caddie, and was there as he sunk that winning putt on the 18th green at Whistling Straits, leading to tears streaming down his cheeks.

Day describes Swatton as a “lifesaver” and someone “I love to death”, helping instil discipline and turn his life around.

The meagre beginnings, financially speaking, meant when Day entered the sport of golf and, in particular, the PGA Tour back in 2006, he made no bones about the fact it was with money in mind.

“I came from a very poor family,” he said after winning the WGC World Matchplay last year. “So it wasn’t the winning that was on my mind when I first came out on the PGA Tour, it was the money. I wanted to play for money because I’d never had it before.”

It has also given him an awareness of those now financially struggling more than him.

One journalist who covers the PGA Tour would wear the same seven shirts from tournament to tournament. Day clocked it and one day asked the journalist about the make-up of his wardrobe, ending the discussion with the words: “Meet me next week.”

True to his word, he met him with 40 new golf shirts, one of a number of stories that make Day one of the more popular golfers on the Tour with players, journalists and tournament staff alike.

There’s no denying Day had talent from day one, but it was his determination, he believes, that became the defining factor. At school, he borrowed a book about Tiger Woods from a friend and leafed through it night after night before bidding to emulate Woods on the golf course early in the morning before classes began, at lunch and until the evening light faded after school.

It helped guide him to his first junior win of note, the junior Australian Masters in 2000, at the age of 13. Six years later, he was on the PGA Tour, making $160,000 in his first year, riches he could only previously have dreamt of.

But from a golfing sense, 2010 proved to be his coming of age, after his fellow Australian Greg Norman was forced to pull out of the British Open in Scotland at the last minute, giving Day a late call-up. He avoided the cut, played all four days and finished 60th overall. At the subsequent Major, that year’s US PGA, the relative unknown finished joint 10th in a stunning season that left him 21st on the PGA Tour money list.

There was, however, the very real danger of him becoming the nearly man of golf. Before Sunday’s enormous victory, he had nine previous top-10 finishes in the Majors, three of them as runner-up: at the 2011 Masters and US Open, and at the 2013 US Open.

It got in his head, as spectators were all too aware, with supporters of the American golfer Jordan Spieth chanting “choke, choke, choke” to Day during the duration of that final winning 18 holes of golf on Sunday.

But it hasn’t all been pay cheques and near misses. Day’s more recent life was beset by further tragedy, in the form of Typhoon Haiyan, which swept through the Philippines in November 2013, leaving eight members of his family dead, including his grandmother.

Casting his mind back, he says of that time: “It was a really tough one for our family, especially my mum. It’s not something anyone should ever have to go through.”

Day now has a family of his own – a son, Dash, 3, and his wife Ellie, who’s currently pregnant once more. And while Dash was pleased to see his father victorious at the weekend, bigger apparently for him was the opportunity to meet Niall Horan, from One Direction, who was among the spectators on the day.

The family have maintained a down-to-earth nature; Ellie, who excitedly live-tweeted much of her husband’s final round, has become a regular on the Tour.

The couple met when she was waiting tables in Ohio, which Day passed through for a tournament. The pair started talking and Day took her number, but the phone stayed quiet until some time later when he decided to text her. The pair married in 2009 and have spent much of their time travelling from tournament to tournament together.

On the course, it’s Day’s continued ability to overcome adversity that makes him so special. At this year’s US Open in June, he suffered such a bad case of vertigo from an ear infection that he collapsed on the 18th hole of his round. Amazingly, he battled through it to finish joint ninth overall.

In July, he claimed fourth at the subsequent Major, the British Open, where he had a chance to join the play-off with the eventual winner Zach Johnson, but missed a birdie putt on his final hole.

Those whispers of the nearly man started once again, questioning whether Day could ever mix it with the very best.

The doubters have been silenced, the belief now that golf’s big two of Rory McIlroy and the aforementioned Jordan Spieth has now become a top three.

Well aware of such doubters, he tweeted words from Wizard of Oz after his victory – “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” – with his gargantuan new trophy in front of him. The whispers, the doubts, the lows, the tragedies, says Day, have made the eventual success all the sweeter.

Day, who argues he too would have been working in the local abattoir had he not found golf, said: “I’ve come a long way through the heartbreaks and frustration of not being able to get it done and being able to do it. It felt good. It felt really good.

“I’ve always felt confident in my ability. You just have to stick to your process, work hard, remain patient and know that one day your time will come. That seems to have been a successful equation for me anyway.”

Now 27 and relatively early in his career, it seems just the start.

For the young man who nine years ago had just a dollar in his pocket, he now has $23m banked. Money stopped being important long ago. More priceless is that his Majors duck has been broken.

His mother argues the reason for his success is hunger: “When you are poor, you become more hungry. It gives you more reason to reach your goals.”

As for his father, she said he would be “doing cartwheels in heaven”.

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Published: August 20, 2015 04:00 AM


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