LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Even now, with his game once again clicking and a smile back on his face, Jason Day sometimes shakes his head in disbelief when recalling the performance he authored at Conway Farms Golf Club two years ago.
To hear him talk of his wire-to-wire victory at the 2015 BMW Championship that took him to No. 1 in the world is to listen to someone describing an out-of-body experience. His confidence was at an all-time high, and the shots he regularly pulled off – like taking driver on the narrow third hole – now seem unfathomable, even to him.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get back there,” Day said. “Even if I did hit an errant shot, it didn’t matter. I’d go in there with a good attitude. [It] always seemed like I had a better lie and better bounces. And when you have kind of this year, my attitude hasn’t been as great as it should have been on the golf course.”
Ask any pro, or even your typical weekend hacker, and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: when the game is clicking, it feels like the birdies will never stop. But when it turns cold, the notion of a turnaround borders on impossible.
It’s certainly been a lean year for Day, one that started with him as the world’s top-ranked golfer and saw him show up to this week’s event without a spot in the Tour Championship assured. It’s been a humbling journey that included time off as his mother battled cancer, and more recently included the decision to part ways with longtime caddie Col Swatton.
The various ups and downs, both on and off the course, have taken their toll.
“I lost a little confidence in myself and my game, and the ability to go out and get the win,” Day said.
But Friday under sunny skies at Conway Farms, the toothy grin returned after a hole-in-one on No. 17, and Day’s easygoing nature was back in full swing. He carded a 6-under 65 that vaulted him into a tie for second place behind Marc Leishman.
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While the change at caddie this week offers an easy explanation for his sudden resurgence, Day believes the root cause is an internal one.
“At the start of the year, I felt like I was kind of fighting an uphill battle with myself, trying to force things too much,” he said. “I feel like I’m just kind of relaxed out there right now. Even after the hole-in-one, I wasn’t even amped. I felt like my heart would be pounding more, but I kind of went about my business. That tells me my mind is in the right spot.”
Day lost a playoff to Billy Horschel at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May, and that proved to be a rare highlight in an otherwise underwhelming campaign. After holding the top seed to begin the 2016 playoffs, the Aussie entered this week No. 28, in danger of missing East Lake for the first time since 2012.
But Day need only look back to last year for a source of inspiration, as Rory McIlroy flipped a mediocre season on its head with a pair of postseason wins that netted the FedExCup title. It’s a goal that’s not especially far-fetched for Day after two more rounds of dominance at Conway Farms, where he tied for fourth in 2013 and bent the course to his will two years ago.
Sixteen months removed from his most recent worldwide win at the 2016 Players Championship, Day appreciates how much a single victory can alter the perception of an entire season.
“I think at the least you need to win at least once to have a successful year,” Day said. “If you won, that means you’ve done something good to keep things going. I mean, it’s not weighing heavy on my mind. I just know that I kind of need to focus on what I have done. I know that I can do it.”
Day has always been a player who leans heavily on mental prep and visualization, but this week he has found success in taking his foot off the gas. It’s an ebb and flow for players at the top level, all of whom vacillate throughout the year while trying to find the sparse middle ground that yields both ample focus and a sufficiently loose approach.
“You definitely can’t play this game I would say for a long period of time stressed out, or not being relaxed, just because of how much we do play, how much pressure there can be,” said Rickie Fowler, who sits alongside Day at 13 under through two rounds. “The more you can be mentally relaxed or rested, it takes a lot of stress and kind of pressure off of your game.”
The heights of 2015 may continue to prove elusive for Day. But with the birdies once again falling at Conway Farms, they still serve as a reminder of just how much talent he possesses – and how quickly the smile can return once the game starts trending in the right direction.
Relaxed and imbued with an extra jolt of confidence, Day has adjusted his goals from simply making the 30-man field at East Lake to leaving this week with a trophy that could put a much-needed positive spin on an otherwise trying season.
“Priorities change as the years go on,” Day said. “Seeing the last two days, I know I still have it in myself to be able to hit the correct shots and go out there and try and win.”