Sunday 27 May 2018

How Jason Day won his battle with poverty and alcohol

Australia's Jason Day smiles during a practice round prior to the start of the 80th Masters Golf Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club, in Augusta, Georgia. Photo: DON EMMERT/Getty Images
Australia's Jason Day smiles during a practice round prior to the start of the 80th Masters Golf Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club, in Augusta, Georgia. Photo: DON EMMERT/Getty Images

Oliver Brown

Jason Day knew he had reached his nadir when he woke up one morning from a drunken stupor, unable to recall the faintest detail about the night before. He was 12 years old.

His father, Alvin, who had eked out a living in an abattoir in Queensland, had died a few months earlier from stomach cancer. Alvin, in many respects, was a deplorable figure, given to beating his son after a round if he dared to shoot a poor score. But the loss of such a savage disciplinarian in his life threatened to send the young Jason off the rails.

The memory magnifies the degree of Day's reinvention since. Where Rory McIlroy grew up a prodigy, and Jordan Spieth reaped the benefits of a comfortable upbringing in Dallas, Day has blazed his trail to the world No 1 spot from the ragged edge. At an age when his two chief rivals were already scratch golfers, Day was, relatively speaking, an impoverished nobody, whose first makeshift three-wood had to be salvaged from a rubbish tip.

Day was raised in a house that was, according to his own description, "old and broken-down", and now the Australian finds himself the favourite to don the Green Jacket at a golf club so impossibly exclusive that even the press officer, Craig Heatley, happens to be one of New Zealand's richest man.

Day talks glowingly of Augusta National these days, but he has not always been enamoured of the Masters experience. When he arrived for his debut in 2011 he was, he disclosed yesterday, so bereft of confidence that he contemplated quitting the game.

"I was sitting across the road in a bus," he reflected. "I had my wife there, my agent and a sports psychologist, and I explained to them that I really did not like golf at that point. I was having a very hard time even picking up the club. We came to the conclusion of saying that it might be my last ever Masters playing, so I may as well enjoy it. Then I went out and finished second."

It is almost impossible to imagine Day feeling susceptible to a crisis of confidence in his present form. He has won six Tour events since last July - by way of contrast, no other player in that time has won more than two. His swing is so immaculately grooved that there is almost no weakness in a game that combines long hitting with a deft touch perfectly suited to Augusta's treacherous greens.

If Day brings his best this week, there is, in the estimation of many, no one to touch him. "We talk about Spieth, McIlroy, but day in, day out, Jason' swing is as smooth as it gets," David Duval, the former Open champion, said. "If he finds it here, there is nobody who is going to beat him. He is that good."

Day refuses to be swept along by the hyperbole. He argued that he would far rather the chasing pack had their chances talked up, quipping: "My ideal Sunday? Probably a Spieth-McIlroy-Fowler-Scott-Watson-Mickelson finish.

"That would be a lot of fun."

There are, he recognises, a couple of nagging health concerns that could compromise his quest. Day's preparations were complicated by a back injury that flared up during his recent World Matchplay triumph in Texas, and he remains vulnerable to the vertigo that caused him to fall over at last season's US Open.


No wonder the joke here is that the only person capable of stopping Day here is his chiropractor.

Day will be accompanied, as ever, by Col Swatton, the caddie who has become his surrogate father since they met at Kooralbyn International School near Brisbane. Col, then Kooralbyn's coach, would scream at him to stop drinking and to sort his life out, and he has carried the advice with him.

On the course, he and his bagman form an inseparable brain trust, even if he plays at such a painstaking pace that he is increasingly known on tour as "Jason All-Day". "Going through the tough times, my team is very, very close," he said. "I don't pay my guys to give me yes answers. I pay them to tell me what's really going on in my life."

In the absence of Tiger Woods, whose scores he used to be able to reel off by heart, Day is savouring his moment as golf's alpha male. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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