From the moment he bounced onto the first tee to the instant he charged off the 18th green Sunday, Jason Day seemed like more than the defending champion. He was like a heavyweight champion. He created an air and carried an aura beautifully. And neither was enough.
That is the utter reality in major championship golf now. You don’t get points for what you’ve done, you don’t get a pass for your potential. It is tough to win majors, whether or not you have won one before.
For every Jason Day, there is always going to be a Jimmy Walker — a solid, savvy pro who is capable of matching your best when it counts the most. Walker won the PGA Championship with a par on the final hole after Day gave it a title-holder’s best shot: making eagle in the group ahead of Walker just to make things interesting.
Interesting to be sure. Roars kept exploding here and there on the back nine at Baltusrol Golf Club, like thunderclaps (which, remarkably, stayed away). There was no way to predict who would evoke one next. The PGA was the most exciting of the year’s majors, as it usually is. Like the other three, it was won by someone who never had won a major before.
Maybe it helps a golfer to know he already has endured the crucible and won one of the four big events, but it obviously doesn’t hurt someone who hasn’t been there. “I didn’t lose the tournament. He won it and he is very deserving,” Day said of Walker, using almost the exact same words Jordan Spieth used when he lost to Day, a first-time winner, at the PGA last year.
As much as golf people see Day as a rising star who is bound to win multiple Grand Slam tournaments, there are no guarantees. Competitors don’t swoon at someone’s record or talent. There are too many pros who are too gifted these days. Lots of luck trying to win a handful of majors, let alone 14 or 18. Winning a second can be a bear.
“I know exactly how Jimmy feels because I did exactly that last year,” Day said, having left the scoring tent Sunday with son Dash to watch the drama play out on No. 18. He saw Walker line up his three-foot putt and make it. He saw Walker’s wife, Erin, and two little children rush the green, the wife very emotional, the kids very exuberant.
“It was actually quite nice to be able to see him celebrate with his family and his friends there. Hats off, because it’s not easy to win tournaments,” Day said. “He controlled himself pretty darn well all day.”
Day carried himself pretty darn well all year. He went on a run after the PGA last season, winning The Barclays and the BMW Championship later in 2015, then three more tournaments, including The Players, in 2016. He is one of the golfers who stirs the atmosphere just by showing up.
Showing up this week was not so easy. He did not practice Monday or Tuesday because he caught a bug from his two kids. Then he was up well into Wednesday morning with his wife, Ellie, at the emergency room because she had an allergic reaction. “You know what? I came in here with not the greatest preparation,” he said. “I’m very, very happy with how I played all week.”
He was really, really happy with his 36th hole of a grueling day after his round was rained out Saturday. “It’s really quite fun to see how far you can actually push yourself mentally, more so than physically,” Day said. He pushed Walker mentally, too, when he cut a three-stroke lead to one by lacing a 258-yard 2-iron onto the green and making the 13-foot, 11-inch putt. If he was going to go down, he was going to go down swinging, like a true champion.
“It was actually quite an exciting finish,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough. One guy beat me.”
So now he is not defending champion anymore. He is tied with Walker and Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson as one-time major winners. There’s a bunch of guys hungry to join them next year.
As Day said, it’s hard to win tournaments, and getting harder.