Day rides out storm to become master

Jason Day taking part in a practice round at Augusta National on Monday. The Australian has debunked every stereotype on his way to becoming a favourite for this week's Masters.
Jason Day taking part in a practice round at Augusta National on Monday. The Australian has debunked every stereotype on his way to becoming a favourite for this week's Masters. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AUGUSTA • For a sport still struggling to cope with Tiger Woods' surgeries and the thought that his best days may be behind him, the ascent of Jason Day and his remarkable back-story could be the saving grace of golf.

If anyone can arrest the much-debated decline in golf's popularity and provide the uniqueness it craves in a post-Tiger wasteland, it is surely a man who has debunked every stereotype on his way to the US Masters.

For all those who think golf is a sport mired in knitwear, sexism and the middle classes, Day is a one-man revolution.

If he can shake off his own back issue, which hurt but failed to hamper him as he won the WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas last month, the Australian could make it two Majors in a row this week.

From his father scavenging for his first club in a local rubbish tip to the underage drinking and beer-bottle brawls, Day's rise to the top has been resolutely unorthodox. He almost quit before the Masters five years ago, but came joint second. Now he is joint favourite as he heads to Augusta National as the world No. 1 again.

His demolition of Louis Oosthuizen in the final in Texas followed on from last year's prolonged purple patch. After leaving a putt short to miss out on a play-off at The Open at St Andrews, Day won the Canadian Open, The Barclays and the BMW Championship as well as getting the Major monkey off his back by claiming the PGA Championship.

Just when golf had been settling down for a decade of duels between Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, here was someone muscling in on the in crowd. And he may have the greatest crossover appeal.

Spieth is the all-American kid, dutiful and deferential, hailing greats as Mr Crenshaw and Mr Nicklaus, raising money for military families and citing his disabled sister, Ellie, as his inspiration.

McIlroy is arguably the most exciting golfer of his age, capable of lustrous streaks and needing a green jacket to complete the career slam.

Day gets on with both but is different. The search for turning points began in earnest when he became the world No. 1 last September.

"I started to believe," he said.

For most, though, it was last June's US Open at Chambers Bay that propelled Day into the consciousness. Fading to ninth on the final day may have done little to quash allegations of choking - he had been second at the tournament in 2011 and 2013 - but the context was Corinthian.

Having collapsed and been diagnosed with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo on Friday, he led by the end of Saturday.

"They are going to make a movie about that round," said Colin Swatton, his mentor-cum-caddie, after four birdies in seven holes.

"That was the greatest round I've ever seen. It was a superhuman effort."

Day grimaced terribly during that round but it seduced the American fans. Hitherto the talk had all been about the controversial course with its contours and fescue grass, but now it was all about Day. The man had guts.

Born in an old sheep station called Beaudesert in Queensland, the family moved when Jason was six and his father, Alvin, worked in a meat-packing factory.

Last year, after winning the PGA Championship, Day gave a brutally frank interview to Golf magazine.

"My dad was a violent alcoholic. He made me sit in the mud under a mango tree while it was storming for three hours," he said.

On another occasion, after a bad round, Alvin preceded a beating by telling his 11-year-old son: "You're going to get it in the parking lot."

It was a revelation that had been a long time coming. Day had earlier said that he intended to honour his father's wish to have his ashes scattered at Augusta National but said that he needed to be the world No. 1 before the green jackets and their mighty tome of rules would allow it. Whether or not he turns up to the Masters with a casket this week, many expect him to go home from a course he calls "heaven" with a gold medal and US$1.8 million (S$2.4 million).

He appreciates the money. He has won more than US$30 million, but remembers paying "five bucks" to cram as many cast-off clothes into a bag at the Salvation Army.

Had his father lived, he says that he would have been a meat packer too. However, when Alvin Day died from cancer when Jason was 12, his Filipino mother Dening wanted more for him. She scraped money to send him to Kooralbyn International School, where he met Swatton.

He argued with Swatton and swore at him when asked to do a short-game drill instead of playing the par-three course. Only the apology, when Day remembered just what his mother had sacrificed, made Swatton think that the boy was worth helping.

Day overcame the booze and racist barbs and, when given a Tiger Woods book, decided to become the world No. 1 by the age of 22.

He is now 28 with a story that extends far beyond golf's narrow fairways.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'Day rides out storm to become master'. Print Edition | Subscribe