NORTON — Remember when everyone knew the name of the world’s best golfers?
Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Tiger Woods. They were like Mantle, Mays, and DiMaggio. Namath and Brady. Jordan and LeBron.
It’s not like that today. On the PGA Tour in 2016, the money is astronomical, the bodies are Planet Fitness-certified, and the skills are better than ever. But holding the title of No. 1 in the world is no guarantee that everybody knows your name. The top spot long held by Tiger today is passed around by relatively faceless young men, big hitters with nerves of titanium and six-pack abs.
Australian Jason Day is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, and he’s in our region this weekend along with Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler, and other booming drivers at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Day shot a 1-under-par 70 on Friday’s first day of play and will be five strokes behind leaders James Hahn and Ryan Moore when he tees off Saturday.
Day is 28, has more than $33 million in career earnings, and copped his first major last year, crushing the field in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan. He ranks second in the chase for the coveted 2016 FedEx Cup. He finished second at TPC Boston in 2010. But unless you’re one of those guys with a putting green in your office, you might not know much about him.
He was born and raised in Queensland, Australia. His dad, Alvin Day, died of stomach cancer when Jason was 11. Day’s mother, Dening, is a native of the Philippines and reportedly sold the family home so that young Jason could attend a golf academy. Jason was 12 when he enrolled in Kooralbyn International School and first came under the tutelage of coach Col Swatton — who today serves as Day’s caddie, swing instructor, and mentor.
“It was 16 years ago,’’ Swatton recalled after Friday’s opening round. “He was just another kid, really. We had 70 kids that were all good. He just worked harder than everybody else.
“His work ethic, desire, and passion set him apart from the other kids. Some of his good friends were actually better than he was. He just outworked everybody.’’
And he’s been ranked No. 1 in the world since late March.
“It’s been an interesting journey,’’ said Swatton. “As a coach, I’ve got to kind of pinch myself at every milestone. Getting a Tour card. Trying to keep a Tour card. Getting in the top 50. You continue to learn something. Even getting to No. 1, at the top of the mountain, you’re still learning.’’
There is work to be done if the No. 1 player in the world plans to win the Deutsche Bank Championship this weekend.
“He played good in patches,’’ said Swatton. “He struggled a little bit to synch up the driver. He hit a lot of good shots, unfortunately he got a couple of tough breaks. When he did hit an average tee shot, he got unlucky.
“He got stuck in a tree on one hole, and another hole he hit a tree and it went 50 yards backward and into a creek.
“He could have played really well today. He could have shot a good score. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing. We had a putt on 3 from 12 feet to take the lead.
“He’s playing well enough to be in contention and well enough to lead the tournament. Just unfortunately didn’t quite finish it off today. We expect to be in the mix.’’
Day’s Friday at TPC Boston ended abruptly when he was whisked from the course minutes after signing his scorecard. A few hours later, he issued this statement:
“After the completion of my round today, I was informed my wife, Ellie, our children Dash and Lucy, and friend Katie were involved in a traffic accident near our RV. Their car was hit by a bus and Ellie was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures. Thankfully, everyone is now resting comfortably and Ellie has been released. They will be monitored in the coming days.”
Ellie Day inadvertently made highlight reels last winter when she was steamrolled by LeBron James while seated next to her husband in the front row of a Cavaliers-Thunder game in Cleveland. Blasted backward by a full-speed Le-Bron trying to save a ball from going out of bounds, the golfer’s wife suffered concussion-like symptoms and left the arena on a stretcher and in a neck brace. She made a full recovery.
Jason Day had his own unusual episode in 2015 when he fainted on the ninth hole during the US Open at Chambers Bay. Tests revealed that he’d suffered an episode of vertigo.
Swatton anticipates no more drama and is optimistic about Day’s chances.
“He likes the course and his family likes the area,’’ said Day’s caddie/mentor. “He feels at home and he’s played well here in the past and he’s looking forward to this weekend.’’Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.