Jason Day held off Jordan Spieth yesterday to win the the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits by three strokes, finishing at a record-breaking 20 shots below par. The victory marked Day’s third win of 2015 but just his first career major despite six career top-5 finishes and second place finishes at both the US Open and the Masters.
On the 18th green, as Day waited for Spieth to finish up so that he could tap in and collect the Wanamaker Trophy, he broke down.
After the celebration and trophy ceremony, Day spoke candidly about his emotions on the 18th green. If you’re wont to dismiss Day’s tears as run-of-the-mill waterworks that are increasingly commonplace at trophy ceremonies these days, don’t be. Day’s journey to the top of PGA Tour is among the more tragic and tumultuous you’ll hear about in sports — especially in golf, a sport synonymous with wealth and privilege.
As he explained in his press conference, his tears reflected his upbringing and the sacrifices his mother made so that Day could focus on golf (via ASAP Sports):
“Yeah, that’s why a lot of emotion came out on 18. That’s why a lot of emotion came out for me. Just knowing that, I mean, my mum took a second mortgage out on the house, borrowed money from my aunt and uncle, just to get me away from where I was to go to school, seven hours drive.
I remember growing up, we — my mum, I mean, we were poor. We weren’t really poor. I mean, I remember watching her cut the lawn with a knife because we couldn’t afford to fix the lawn mower. I remember not having a hot water tank, so we had to use a kettle for hot showers. So, you know, we would put the kettle on and go have a shower, and then my mum would come bring three or four kettles in, just to heat them up. And it would take five, ten minutes for every kettle to heat up.
So just to be able to sit in front of you guys today and think about those stories, it gets me emotional knowing that I’m the PGA Champion now and it feels good.”
Day’s road to the PGA Tour starts with his father salvaging a 3-wood from the town dump when Day was just a toddler. As Shane Ryan explained in his excellent Grantland profile from 2014:
The Days lived in poverty, to the extent that they would often forage for useful items at the town dump. On one trip, Alvin found an old 3-wood and brought it home to his son. Jason was 3, and he took to it immediately, using the club to smash whatever object was handy. This went on until he was 6 and finally met the minimum age requirements at the Beaudesert Golf Club. At that point, he was using a mixed bag of salvaged clubs.
Day’s father died from stomach cancer was Day was 11, and suddenly he started fighting other kids from his school and drinking so heavily that he became an alcoholic by the time he was 12. Sensing that her son’s talent was going to waste, Day’s mother took out the second mortgage that he spoke about yesterday so that he could go to a sports-specific boarding school. At Kooralbyn International School, Day met a golf coach named Colin Swatton — now Day’s caddie, and the first person he embraced at the 18th hole of Whistling Straits.
Since becoming a major name in golf, Day spoken candidly about wanting to play on the PGA Tour more for the money than because he cared about winning. It’s rare to hear athletes speak so candidly about the financial incentives of professional sports; usually we hear the generic, safe cliches about playing for greatness and legacy, etc. But Day has been more honest. As he told Ryan:
“I came from a very poor family. So it wasn’t winning that was on my mind when I first came out on the PGA Tour. It was money.”
“I wanted to play for money, because I’d never had it before.”
Given Day’s childhood, this makes total sense, and so do his emotions on the 18th.
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