Ironman Day takes his place in golfing folklore
It fell to Colin Swatton, Jason Day’s caddie and for many years his surrogate father, to articulate the full significance of a round of golf that he heralded as the most courageous he had ever seen.
“I told him they might make a movie about it some day,” the amiable bag-man said as Day, barely able to stand due to recurrences of vertigo and relying on Swatton simply to plant his tee-peg in the turf, contrived to shoot a 68 that rendered him the unrivalled folk hero at the 115th US Open.
When Day drained a six-footer on the 18th green for his fourth birdie in seven holes, the Saturday night roars of the Chambers Bay galleries could have been heard 10 miles away by the flocks of cormorants roosting on the far shore of Puget Sound. For 24 hours the debate had centred on whether the Australian would even be able to stand up, after he collapsed with dizziness at the close of his second round, not on the seemingly fanciful notion that he might carve out a share of the 54-hole lead. But Day, defiant to the last, flipped medical wisdom on its head. As Kevin Kisner, his incredulous playing partner, put it: “Beware the sick golfer.”
Day looked exhausted to the point of nausea as he reeled away to sign his remarkable scorecard. It had taken every drop of energy for him just to keep upright as he negotiated Chambers Bay’s dramatic shifts in gradient for the best part of 4 hours. The fact that he was still capable of peppering the flagstick at will, just when his fatigue threatened to floor him, was testament to a prodigious exercise in sheer bloody mindedness. As he trooped up one last slope from the 18th to the scorer’s hut, Swatton said in his ear: “Yours was the greatest round of golf I have ever watched. That was a superhuman effort.”
Such were Swatton’s revelations about this extraordinary performance, it was as if parts of Day’s round could have been set to the Rocky theme music. He said: “I told Jason: ‘Look, you’ve got the heart of a lion. You get to show the world today that you’re going to be the greatest you can be. Let’s do it.’ ”
It is doubtful that Day could have soldiered through without the reassuring crutch of Swatton’s shoulder. He looked ready to abandon his quest on both the fourth and seventh tees, staggering around in a daze before his caddie helped to steady him.
The two of them have forged an unbreakable partnership since Day was 12-years-old, taken by his father Alvin to play a few holes per day at Beaudesert Golf Club in Queensland. From there, Day blossomed under Swatton’s tuition at Hills International College on the Gold Coast, later winning both the Australian Boys Amateur and the world junior title in the US.
The fact that the final round of the US Open always falls on Father’s Day ensures that the players’ connections to their dads or their children are often played up. But in the case of Day and Swatton, it seemed an apt occasion on which to celebrate the paternalistic dynamic between them.
Even though Day has suffered with dizzy spells since 2010, according to his wife Ellie, he was only diagnosed late last Friday night with benign positional vertigo, a condition where tiny crystals in the inner ear mean the brain receives confusing signals about the body’s position in relation to the ground.
Even on flat surfaces, it can create the sensation that the world is spinning. On a course as punishing and relentlessly undulating as Chambers Bay, it magnifies the sense of disorientation to almost unbearable levels.
Except Swatton, conscious that a first major trophy beckoned for Day after four top-10 finishes in the past two years, would not allow his protege to quit.
It is no wonder that Day considers his everpresent sidekick as family, or that he once confided: “It feels like he is my right arm. I couldn’t play golf without him.”
In an instant, as the sun slipped behind the Pacific, Day’s back nine of 31 entered golfing folklore. It is in keeping with the grinding qualities prized by the US Open that the season’s second major has produced so many entries in the canon of sporting valour.
In 1964, when the field was forced to play 36 holes on the Sunday at a steamy Congressional, an ailing Ken Venturi was warned by his doctor that he risked his life if he chose to play the final 18 in the saturating heat. Against all expectations, Venturi wound up winning.
The clearest parallel, though, was with the display by Tiger Woods at this tournament in 2008, when the former world No 1 prevailed in a play-off against Rocco Mediate despite the agonies of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Day’s effort, seven years on, was every bit as Herculean. The drugs he had taken the previous evening to counter the vertigo and avert another fall were still coursing through his body as he confronted Chambers Bay’s fiendish homeward stretch.
On the tee at the 16th, needing to drive the ball 370 yards to make the green, Day could barely stop shaking. Only the counsel of Swatton, and the glimpse of a leaderboard that showed his chances of victory remained intact, sustained him.
That last push proved the cue for an astonishing birdie-birdie finish, before he took the acclaim of a sympathetic crowd with a groggy wave. “I just wanted to get it done,” he reflected.
Medical dramas aside, the lineaments of Day’s back-story have made him a prime contender for this raucous Seattle crowd to cheer for. There was, for a start, the chaos of his adolescence, when one of his sisters fled from home and Day became drawn into a netherworld of street fights and underage drinking.
His passion for golf, first piqued when his father gave him a three-wood due to be thrown out with the rubbish, offered a merciful escape. Then there was the devastating loss of eight of his relatives in 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines.
Day demonstrated in the aftermath of that tragedy his supreme resilience, partnering Adam Scott to a triumph for Australia in the World Cup team event in Melbourne the very next week. But it was here in Washington State, beseeched by an American audience who embraced him as one of their own, that he delivered his heroic masterpiece.