AUGUSTA, Ga. — Maybe the part you most relate to is that Jason Day tweaked his back while bending over to kiss his young daughter, something just about anyone over a certain age can understand. Or maybe it’s his admission that getting out of bed in the morning is a process that starts at about 10 minutes and gets longer from there, a reality anyone with back issues has almost certainly endured.
Maybe it’s his willingness to listen to his wife Ellie when she tells him to ‘suck it up,’ or maybe it’s the respect he shows for Ellie in an even more profound way, calling her tougher than he ever could be for giving birth to their three children, reflections of maturity in a relationship anyone would admire.
So yes, there’s plenty to like about Jason Day, plenty to relate to in one of the most popular golfers on the PGA Tour, the 31-year-old whose ever-present smile, endearing Australian accent, and seemingly never-ending injury issues make him feel like one of us.
Until he goes out and does what he did across the first two days of the Masters.
That, no mere mortal can understand.
Did you see Day after what happened on the practice putting green Thursday, after he bent down to kiss little Lucy and felt an all-too-familiar shockwave burst through his back? Did you see him as he took that first swing off the tee at the Masters and take a halting, pain-fueled walk down the fairway? Did you see him paying the physical price the entire round, stopping for treatment from his chiropractor after the first hole and again on the fourth tee, walking the greens like Mother Goose’s Crooked Man? Did you see him and think, ‘There is no way he is going to finish this round, never mind post a decent score?’ ”
And did you see him walking off the 18th green Friday holding a scorecard with a share of the lead? With Friday’s 5-under-par 67 following Thursday’s incredible 2-under 70, Day heads into the weekend one of five players in the front of the pack, atop a leaderboard so stacked with star power (including Tiger Woods just one shot back) it promises a compelling Saturday.
But of all the good stories among the likes of reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari, three-time major winner Brooks Koepka, or fellow Australian and Masters winner Adam Scott, it was Day’s performance that stood out as particularly courageous and inspiring in the face of pain. Pain that threatened to force his withdrawal before his first nine holes were complete, pain that flares up often enough to threaten not only his career, but his mental well-being.
“It’s hard,” he was saying Friday in the Masters’ interview room, a day after he declined to speak with reporters so he could get to immediate medical treatment instead. “Emotions can go up and down. Sometimes you can be down and depressed because it feels like your world is kind of crumbling around you, and you don’t know if you can come back from injuries.”
If you’re lucky, you do make it back, and as Day reiterated many times Friday, he knows just how fortunate he is to be out there pursuing the life he loves, not only in having the time, dedication, and desire to continue battling his injuries, but to feel the love and support of the family who remain by his side as he does. Day’s descriptions of what he endures to play the game were shocking, beginning with a story about how his ribcage gets out of alignment with his pelvic floor and the bottom of his mouth. (“This is my trainer talking, not me,” he said.)
“I blow into balloons in certain positions to try and get my ribcage down, but I’ve got these other exercises that are trying to get space in the joint with regards to my hips and my back and my shoulders, and that takes about 30 minutes in the morning and 20 or 30 minutes at night,” he described. “And then I go see my chiro, and sometimes it’s 10 minutes and sometimes it’s 20 or 30 minutes, so there’s a good hour. And you obviously have to go out and warm up and make sure everything’s good.
“It’s a pain, but I have to do it.”
It comes at a price. After his round Thursday, he could see his son Dash hitting golf balls with Bubba Watson’s son Caleb in the RV compound both golfers stay at during the tournament, but much as he wanted to join, he had to lie down and ice his back. But it works as prevention, too — Day said the word ‘no,’ six times before fully answering whether surgery might be an option in the future. And it also brings perspective, not simply in offering a distraction to a single-minded golfer prone to obsessing over results (and a green jacket result at Augusta is No. 1 on his wish list), but in forcing lighthearted acknowledgment of what we are willing to endure for something we love.
There Day was with his trainer last week in Florida, in the pilot’s lounge at a small airport, squeezing in a treatment session while two pilots sat nearby.
“I’m laying on the ground and they are sitting there, and I’m blowing these balloons up, and as you let the balloons go, it sounds like you let one go, right?” he laughed. “So every 30 seconds, I would be letting the balloons out, and these guys are looking at me very strange.
“I’m just doing whatever I can to feel good. If blowing in balloons is what I need to do to feel good, then I will do it all day long.”
Who can’t relate to that?Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.