03/28/2016

From the time his ball settled in the hillside rough on 18 to when the Golf Channel microphone that doubled as a rodent was shoved in his face following a one-up victory over Rory McIlroy, we saw the full gamut of Jason Day, the golfer.

His chip from that unenviable position next to the green popped out of the grass just right. It crept down the slope at a glacial pace, dragging Day’s nerves with it the entire way. When the ball settled 15 feet from the hole, Day had a long par putt to see off McIlroy. He buried it without drama.

It was the same putt Day left short on 18 at St. Andrew’s last summer, the same one he couldn’t quite find when he made a charge at the 2011 Masters. In another year, another time, Day might have missed this one too.

But, if you’ll allow me, this is a new Day, one who, in defeating first McIlroy and then Louis Oosthuizen 5-and-4 in the final, won his second WGC-Dell Match Play in three years Sunday. It was the Australian’s sixth PGA victory in his last 13 events and second in a row.

And yet as dominant as Day was throughout the weekend, there was still a level of doubt in his voice as he spoke after the bout with McIlroy.

“I was nervous,” he said. “I’m going to take that experience today, playing against Rory, into the future.”

At this point, maybe Rory should be learning from him.

Day is not quite a reluctant superstar, but he’s still finding his way at the top of golf. Consider his press conference prior to winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Day admitted that then World No. 1 Jordan Spieth’s schedule was too hectic, that Jordan might burn out if he continued on the same pace.

Day also said that holding the top ranking in the sport comes as a burden. There’s added pressure. Everyone is gunning for you.

It was candid answer from a position that usually comes with platitudes and coyness. But Day is not accustomed to the spotlight. He never planned on being there, he only wanted to win before realizing that was something you had to learn.

Well, thanks his run in Austin, Day has once again usurped Spieth in the world rankings. It’s a place he fully deserves. After leading wire to wire at Bay Hill, Day cruised through the Match Play despite a bad back.

The last two victories were particularly emphatic. McIlroy was the defending champion and the World No. 3. With his full arsenal of shots, he can beat anyone even on an off day. Day, though, took the fight to Rory right away. He sank a long birdie putt on one to set the tone. It was a back-and-forth tussle from there. McIlroy seized control temporarily, leading one-up at the turn. But as his driver failed him, Day found birdies at 10, 12 and 13 to take a two-up advantage. He held on until that final par putt fell on 18.

[bctt tweet=”At this point, maybe Rory should be learning from him.”]

The championship match failed to live up to the heavyweight fight of the semifinals. Oosthuizen defeated Spaniard Rafael Cabrera Bello, who beat an indifferent McIlroy for third place, to earn a title shot with Day. Louis delivered the first blow, but it turned out to be his last. Day won six of the first 14 holes to cruise to the win.

Day’s dominance over the last two weeks has left us in a similar position as we were last August when he bludgeoned Spieth down the stretch at Whistling Straits. He looks like the best golfer in the world. He’s playing like the best golfer in the world. Is he, though, the best golfer in the world?

Right now, sure. But as he said two weeks ago, holding that ranking adds another dimension entirely. His next stop will reveal if this is indeed a Day with staying power—Augusta National for the Masters.