AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jason Day closes his eyes before every shot, a routine he’s utilized for years to visualize the swing he wants to make, the path and trajectory he wants his golf ball to take.
When he opens his eyes, there are numerous visible signs confirming that nobody, currently, is playing better golf than the 28-year-old from Australia. Those signs can pop up in the strangest places.
Taking a seat in the interview room this week at Augusta National Golf Club, Day surveyed the room and didn’t see many empty chairs.
“The room’s a little bit more full this year than it’s been in the past,” Day said. “Which is nice.”
Warranted, too, because everybody these days wants to hear what Day has to say. As the 80th Masters gets set to start Thursday under clouds and the threat of morning rain, Day is considered the man to beat.
He has been on a Tiger-like tear for nearly a full year, winning six tournaments in his past 13 PGA Tour starts. That includes his last two, at Bay Hill (wire to wire) and the Match Play, where he beat Rory McIlroy in the semifinals, Louis Oosthuizen in the final, and trailed in his six matches for a total of seven holes.
The Match Play victory shot Day into the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, supplanting Jordan Spieth. But Spieth has something that Day really wants: a win at the Masters.
Day has something that Spieth wants, too. He held off the Texan to win last year’s PGA Championship, the first major of Day’s career after coming close for years.
Two of those flirtations came at Augusta; Day tied for second in his 2011 Masters debut, then finished third in 2013 to Adam Scott, who became the first Aussie to ever win here.
Many are expecting Day to become the second, and have anointed him the pretournament favorite. Day doesn’t exactly see it that way.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’m the favorite this week,” Day said. “There’s a lot of people out there that can play well this week and win. Jordan and Rory and Henrik [Stenson], even Phil [Mickelson] is a favorite here. So many players that can win around here, and there’s not just one heavy favorite this week, which is fantastic. I think it’s good for the game.”
Golf, almost always, comes down to putting. Spieth ranked ninth last year in strokes gained putting, when he seemed to make every putt he had to until a miss on the 71st hole at the British Open cost him a spot in the playoff and ended his dream of winning all four majors in the same calendar year. He’s 17th in putting this year, and comes here without a top-10 finish over his past four stroke-play starts. He was third in putting while winning last year’s Masters.
Day is on a similar run of holing key putts. He’s third on tour this year in strokes gained putting, and when he’s played well at the Masters, he’s been near the top of the putting category. He was 11th in 2011, and seventh in 2013.
“You wonder how long it will last. He’s not thinking like that,” said Curtis Strange, two-time US Open winner who will be part of ESPN’s early-round broadcast team. “I’d much rather be in a position where people are saying, ‘Can it last?’ versus trying to find something. I’d rather be in Jason Day’s position than Jordan Spieth’s position right now.
“Jason is long. He’s incredibly streaky. We saw that last year. But it’s a streak continuing from last year to this year. He seems to have it figured out.”
Day hasn’t been shy about opening up in recent months. He has admitted to being on the receiving end of serious physical abuse at the hands of his father, who died when Day was 12. He acknowledged that he considered giving up golf in the days leading up to his Masters debut five years ago, so distraught was he over the state of his game (days later, he tied for second). He wept on the 18th green after winning the PGA at Whistling Straits.
He also has confirmed that he has reached out to Tiger Woods for advice on how to play his best golf. How to turn a lead into a win, how to win when your game is slightly off, how to extend a stretch of strong play.
Woods has been willing to share. Maybe he’s shared too much, considering the run Day is on. Day might not be publicly declaring himself the favorite — that wouldn’t be his style — but he knows the expectations for him here this week are higher than those on any other.
The major championship season is upon us, and Day is wearing the bull’s-eye, although history says it’ll be a tall order: The most recent No. 1-ranked player to win the Masters was Woods, in 2002.
“I feel comfortable around this course,” said Day, who starts his first round at 1:06 p.m. Thursday, paired with Matt Kuchar and Ernie Els. “I know it sets up well for me. It’s a golf course that I can compete and play well and win.”