World number one Jason Day 'running on empty' after wife's A&E drama
As if the collective major campaign of the trio once commonly known as “The Big Three” was not bad enough then their highest-ranked member turned up here at the USPGA on Wednesday in a wretched state.
Without a practice round, sick with a bug caught from his children, tired from a packed schedule and exhausted yet further by a early-hour trip in an ambulance to A&E with his wife, world No 1 Jason Day announced he had “low expectations”. And considering 2016 for him, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy so far, ‘low’ might be considered a tad high.
Of course, you can never write off Day. The Australian has proved before that he can win in the face of adversity. Indeed, at Whistling Straits 12 months ago, he was still suffering from the vertigo which had caused his collapse at the US Open six weeks before and he proceeded to make his major breakthrough with a record 20-under. Day carried that form through to 2016 in a remarkable period which featured him winning seven times in 17 starts.
Day has three coveted titles to his name this year - including a World Golf Championship event and the Players Championship – and if it is possible for a defending champion to be overdue then here he is. But the 28-year-old’s preparations have not exactly been ideal.
"I was always going to take Monday off and Dash and Lucy [his children] are sick right now and Dash passed that on to me," Day explained. "I'm a bit under the weather. Then Ellie had an allergic reaction last night and had to go to the hospital. We were there until 2am. She was kind of freaking out, which is understandable, because she went all red. I've been in that situation before when I first ate seafood so I was calm, but she was like, 'call 911, call 911!'. The paramedics took us in and she’s fine now. I’m kind of running on empty.”
His knowledge tank is largely existing on fumes, as well. Day had not seen the Lower Course until rushing out at lunchtime on Wednesday and only had the advice of Doug Steffen, the club’s head professional, to work off. “At the Champions' Dinner, I went through pretty much every hole with him for about 20, 30 minutes," Day said.
In contrast, Dustin Johnson has been here since Monday and sounds very confident on a 7,400-yarder which sets up perfectly his extraordinary power. Johnson, the US Open champion, has the chance to usurp Day at the top of the rankings and reign as No 1 for the first time. And despite Johnson’s talent few would have thought that probable at the start of that season.
Going into Augusta, Ladbrokes were offering 1-3 on McIlroy, Spieth and Day winning at least one major between them. Some of the sums staked suggested this was “buying money”. Alas, there is no such thing in golf, especially in the post-Tiger era. In the three majors to date “The Big Three” have only recorded one top-four in the majors between them; and that was Spieth’s humiliating meltdown at the Masters. Having won five of the previous six majors going into 2016, their run has dried up as their rivals have caught up.
If Danny Willett, then the world No 12, highlighted the depth of golf quality at Augusta then Henrik Stenson, and, indeed, Phil Mickelson, showed two weeks ago at the Open that there are performers in the elite at the moment who can separate themselves in any given week. With such a small turnaround between majors – blame the Olympics and the authorities' pathetic attempt to cram everything in – both Stenson and Mickelson could still be riding the momentum and both could easily figure again. Except Baltusrol is not Royal Troon and even though he has only had one win and so much frustration so far this year, McIlroy has to be the fancy.
This rain-softened course was made for his driver and hence for his chances. It is no coincidence that McIlroy has won two Wanamaker Trophies, because when he can go a firing with his main weapon then the rest of his armoury invariably obliges as well. As David Duval, the former world No 1, put it: “Rory wants to stand up 14 times a round and hit driver, because he knows if he does that and he’s driving it well he will probably win.”
The Northern Irishman would be a worthy addition to Baltusrol’s roll call. AW Tillinghast’s creation is often accused of being a “boring US course” with its par of 70 and boasting only two par-fives, which happen to be the 17th and 18th. But there is nothing tedious about its champions. Phil Mickelson won this event here in 2005 and Jack Nicklaus collected two US Opens, in 1967 and 1980. The first of these triumphs was made legend by one of the game’s greatest shots, when, on the 18th, Nicklaus fired a one-iron 237 yards into the wind and over the bunker guarding the green. He was to hole the 20-footer, beat Arnold Pamer by four, at the same time as lowering Ben Hogan’s record US Open mark. Believe it, Baltusrol has a rich past.
It also has a skeleton in its locker, however. The course is named after Baltus Roll, a Scottish immigrant farmer who lived on the plot until brutally murdered for his money on a cold night in 1831. With major golf, history always does come with its warnings.