Becoming a major champion is a learning process. It’s a series of near-misses, painful failures and lessons learned that eventually merge into the necessarily attributes to survive golf’s sternest tests and achieve its greatest glory.
Of all the game’s current stars still learning under that challenging curriculum, Jason Day is the one most poised to graduate with a major championship in the very near future.
Although he’s only been competing in majors since the summer of 2010, the talented, young Australian has already earned five top 10 finishes in golf’s signature events, including a third place finish at the 2013 Masters that he followed up a couple months later with a tie for second in the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.
In a relatively short period of time, Day has paid the dues of an accomplished golfer seeking to break through as a first-time major champion. He’s suffered the near misses several times over. He’s undoubtedly replayed the what-ifs in his mind more times than he wants to recount.
Just as important as experience and lessons learned, Day has all the game necessary to win a major championship—and then some. Until now, that talent has been on display while falling short on golf’s largest stage.
Yet, those setbacks will eventually—and likely very soon—prove to be the launching pad for great talent eventually realizing ultimate glory.
The Experience to Finally Close
In the past three years, Day has finished among the top three at both The Masters and the U.S. Open. In addition, the one-time PGA Tour winner owns a top 10 in the 2010 PGA Championship, just the second major start of his professional career.
He has competed well on the toughest of courses—Augusta National, Congressional Golf Club and Merion—and held his own against the world’s best players every time he has unsuccessfully challenged for that major breakthrough. He’s also kept a positive attitude following each near-miss.
"As long as I keep knocking on the door, I think I'll win a major here soon," Day said following his tie for second at the 2013 U.S. Open.
Just a couple weeks ago, Day not only survived the weekend carnage at Merion Golf Club, but he actually played well despite falling two shots short of first-time major winner and playing partner Justin Rose.
Two months before that performance, Day experienced the flip side of major championship golf, suffering a pair of bogeys late in the final round at Augusta National to miss by two shots—the playoff was eventually won by good friend and fellow Aussie, Adam Scott.
Like with Rose, Scott’s Masters victory was his first major. And just as in the Open, Day, who played a group ahead of his fellow countryman, was in close proximity to see just how thin the line is between winning and losing a major championship. It’s painful to watch but useful to call back upon when it's finally Day’s time to breakthrough.
Day’s first taste of late major pressure came in the 2011 Masters, where he competed down the stretch against some of the finest golfers, including Tiger Woods, Scott and eventual champion Charl Schwartzel.
Despite falling short, Day birdied the final two holes at Augusta National to finish in a tie for second-place with Scott.
"It totally depends on the play, totally depends on me. If I want it enough and I'm willing to do the hard work and practice and keep myself dedicated, I think it will happen," said Day.
"If I slack off and don't do the work, then it won't happen. And that's just plain and simple. Every goal that I try and accomplish, it's all the process.”
A Major Amount of Talent
It is indeed a process, but it’s one that requires significant skill to navigate. By and large, only the most talented golfers have what it takes to challenge for major championships on more than one occasion.
Like pop stars on the radio waves, golf’s major championships are littered with one-hit wonders that fail once and fade away. Yet, it’s the golfers with the talent Day possesses that keep coming back time and again for yet another shot.
Yes, the Australian has only one PGA Tour victory but there’s no questioning that the game is there. Day hits the ball about as far as any major championship caliber player, ranking 12th in total driving distance on the PGA Tour this year.
Unlike other big bombers, however, Day has the short game to match the power, ranking fourth in sand save percentage and 33rd in both scrambling and total putting.
That combination of power and touch has resulted in three top 10 finishes outside of the majors this season, highlighted by a third-place showing at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship back in February.
Holding Day back has been his inconsistency off the tee, which has not only cost him strokes to par, but also robbed him of opportunities to go low when scoring conditions allow.
The Australian currently ranks only 121st in driving accuracy and, by extension, 108th in Greens in Regulation.
That said, Day was in contention at Merion two weeks ago because he drove the ball better and played conservatively when needed. If he can add that formula to the power and touch equation he already owns, there’s no question a major is quickly forthcoming.
A number of great international stars have been poised at the precipice of major championship glory only to be denied time and again. Greats like Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie quickly come to mind.
They are proof that winning a first major is often as much about time and luck as it is experience and talent.
Day, however, seems different. He is resilient enough to overcome the setbacks and driven enough to risk repeating them.
"Process, goals, turn into the big goals that you accomplish. And everyone knows that,” Day said. “I've just got to keep working hard and doing the little things right."
That hard work is poised to turn the near misses into one huge achievement that will put Day alongside Scott and Rose as three of the game’s most recognizable international stars celebrating the sport’s most significant accomplishment.