It all started here
A Junior World Championships victory at Torrey Pines in 2004 gave Jason Day the belief that he'd someday be World No. 1
January 26, 2016
By Brian Wacker , PGATOUR.COM
Editor's note: Jason Day won the WGC-Dell Match Play on March 27, 2016 and reclaimed the World No. 1 ranking. Below is our feature on Day from January on his rise.
Whenever Jason Day thinks about Torrey Pines, the first thing that comes to mind is Polo Sport cologne, its potent mix of cedar, pepper and leather with hints of lemon and peach.
“I thought I smelled sooooo good,” Day says in his thick Australian accent. “I used to shower myself in it.”
“I can’t stand the smell of it.”
Even so, the odoriferous moment takes him back to July of 2004 when he first saw the iconic course north of San Diego. Day, then a scrawny 16-year-old with a resume full of titles won in his home country, was making his first appearance at the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships, a summer rite of passage for the who’s who of amateur golf.
Other than a short trip to neighboring New Zealand, Day had never been anywhere outside Oz, much less somewhere as sprawling and bustling as California. He made the trip with only his coach and caddie, Colin Swatton, who knew Day from the academy in Australia where he taught and was also something of a father figure after Day’s own dad had passed away from stomach cancer five years earlier.
During a visit to Palm Springs in the California desert, Day bought the bottle of Polo Sport at an outlet mall. His mom, who was back in Australia, had also bought him a special outfit -- plaid short-sleeve shirt, khaki slacks, brown dress shoes -- for a barbecue the tournament held for the few hundred kids that week at Torrey Pines. It turned out that everyone else was in shorts and flip-flops.
“I looked like such a dweeb, man!” Day recalls with a laugh. “It was the worst thing ever.”
Or was it?
“I told him you look professional,” Swatton remembers. “He did. It looked like he was there to play and win. The other guys were there to have fun.”
Win he did.
Day wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Torrey Pines’ difficult South Course; he had played it plenty of times in video games. But he’s not sure how much that helped him once he saw the course in person during a practice round.
“I couldn’t believe how long it was and how hard it was,” he said.
That played to his strengths, as he shot 69 each of the first three rounds and led by five going into the last day.
Still, he was so nervous the morning of the final round that he couldn’t eat the pancakes the tournament was serving for breakfast. He went out in 3 under to extend the lead but nearly coughed it up, stumbling home in 41 to shoot 74 to finish at 7 under, just good enough to hold off playing partner and future pro Joseph Bramlett by two to win the 15- to 17-year-old division.
“I’m usually focused and to myself when I play tournaments, but I specifically remember coming away from that round not only impressed with Jason’s skill level but the way he played the game,” Bramlett says. “I’d seen the really intense players, and the ones who barely cared. But Jason blended the two together extremely well and it really caught my attention.”
The list of players whose names are on the wall by the putting green at Torrey Pines for that age group is long and distinguished: Craig Stadler, Nick Price, John Cook, David Toms, Pat Perez, Anthony Kim, Tiger Woods and Day.
“That was the first time I felt like I could turn professional and potentially get to No. 1 in the world,” Day says. “It was a TOUR event kind of stop. Everyone talked about the big tournaments back home and Junior Worlds was the biggest. If you won that everyone knew who you were.
“That gave me a big boost of confidence and showed me I could be the player I wanted.”
Jason Day has come a long way. Here's what his swing looked like at 12 years old. http://t.co/q9cRlmK7GC— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 30, 2015
Five years earlier, Day, whose first swing with a golf club came at age 3 with a 3-wood his father gave him from a trash pile, didn’t know what he wanted or where he was going. After the death of his father Alvin -- an alcoholic who Day says sometimes used to hit him if he didn’t play well enough -- he was getting drunk by age 12 and getting into fistfights.
Three things helped saved him from completely unraveling -- his mom Dening; his mentor Swatton; and golf.
Dening sent her son to Kooralbyn International School, which had a golf course attached to it, and later scraped together enough money for her son to attend Hills International College, a golf academy that moonlighted as a boarding school where he would ultimately meet Swatton.
The dedication from Day, who also has two older sisters, was evident early on. He taped a list of goals above his bunk at school and was early to bed/early to rise, often waking at 5:30 a.m. to practice for a couple of hours before class. Day broke 70 for the first time at age 12 and by 15 had read a biography on Tiger Woods, something that would prove inspiring and push him to work even harder.
He went on to twice be awarded the Australian Junior Order of Merit and at 16 won the Queensland Amateur, becoming the youngest champion in the event's 104-year history.
“Anything he achieved is just really well-deserved because he worked harder than anyone,” his boarding school roommate, Luke Reardon, once told The Courier Mail newspaper in Australia.
Bud Martin first met Day at the Australian PGA Championship in 2002. Day wasn’t in the tournament but played nine holes in the pro-am with two of his idols, fellow Aussies Adam Scott and Greg Norman.
“He was an incredible physical talent; he had such speed,” says Martin, who eventually became his manager once he turned pro. “With all due respect to those guys, (Day) was in another world in terms of speed.
“He struck the golf ball significantly different than most people. I knew right there he was a special guy.”
The win in San Diego in 2004 served notice to everybody else. It was hard to ignore the Aussie’s potential. As Day recalls, “I felt like the king of the world when I won that. Obviously I was the best junior in the world at that point.”
After his victory at the Junior Worlds, Day won another amateur event in California the following week before finishing runner-up at a tournament in Florida. When he returned home, 300 of his classmates were at the school to welcome him, forming a pathway with golf clubs raised above their heads.
There was a lot to celebrate after a month in America, but it was the victory at Torrey Pines that put Day on the map … and allowed him to start dreaming big.
“It was kind of, ‘Hey world, this is Jason and he’s good at what he does in Australia but can do it anywhere,’” recalls Swatton. “You can be a big fish in a small pond, but we wanted to show he can play in the U.S. and on difficult courses.
“Winning meant something to him. It was kind of that ah-ha moment. He asked me ‘Do you think I can be the best player in the world?’“
Swatton’s response: “Absolutely.”
Day turned pro in 2006 and kept on going.
Playing on sponsor exemptions, Day had seven starts on the PGA TOUR that year, making the cut in five of them, including top-15 finishes in two events. He went to q-school that December but failed to make it through. It didn’t matter.
The following summer at age 19, Day won the Legend Financial Group Classic in Cleveland on the then-Nationwide Tour and followed with four straight top 15s. He finished the year fifth in money to earn a call-up to the big stage. Two years later, Day got his first TOUR win at the Byron Nelson Championship.
Still, it was his first trip to Torrey Pines that resonates.
“Back in the day, I used to call myself a human GPS; we had no GPS back then and I was really good at reading maps,” he says. “After the tournament, we were in a Subway restaurant and kept asking where ‘El-Ca-Jon’ was and how to find it.
“Well, it’s pronounced ‘El-Ca-hon.’ We didn’t know. It was funny. We figured it out eventually and found our way.”
And funny enough, Day found his way back to Palm Springs prior to teeing it up at Torrey Pines a year ago. He wasn’t there to buy another bottle of cologne. He needed to find something more important, find a way to take that next step.
In Palm Springs, he started visualizing a win at Torrey Pines, imagining himself holding the trophy on a Sunday afternoon at the South Course.
He went out the next week and did exactly that. Then he kept winning -- four more times the rest of the 2014-15 season, including his first major, the PGA Championship, at Whistling Straits.
The next month, he reached No. 1 in the world following a victory at the BMW Championship -- his second victory of the 2015 FedExCup Playoffs.
It took him 11 years but Day had finally provided his own response to the question he first posed to Swatton after that Junior Worlds win.