A back injury forced Day to withdraw from last year’s season-ending Tour Championship, and its effects lingered into the off-season, limiting the hours he was able to work on his game.
Just as he was beginning to feel better physically, Day absorbed an emotional haymaker when his mother, Dening, who lives in his native Australia, learned she had lung cancer.
When Day found out his mother had been coughing up blood for three months before she scheduled the examination that led to the diagnosis, he exercised his authority as the de facto family patriarch and insisted that she temporarily move in with him, his wife and their two small children to seek further treatment at Ohio State Medical Center.
It was a discomfiting role reversal for Day, who had fed off his mother’s strength since his father died of stomach cancer when Day was 12. After he lost his father, Dening stretched the family’s meager finances to send Day to the boarding school where he met Colin Swatton, who became his swing coach, caddie and confidant.
Dening Day, whose work ethic inspired her son’s all-in approach to golf, encouraged him to keep playing tournament golf this year as if nothing were amiss. Jason Day tried, but he has never been good at compartmentalizing his emotions.
“Some days I would wake up, and I would feel really, really bad and sad about what’s going on with my mom,” he said, “and other days I would wake up, and then I would start feeling guilt because I didn’t feel like I was feeling bad enough for the situation that my mom was going through.”
Day’s dueling emotions became impossible for him to manage at the recent World Golf Championships event in Texas, the Dell Technologies Match Play. The tournament, which he entered as the defending champion, was held the same week his mother had exploratory surgery in Columbus for the mass on her left lung. Every time Day closed his eyes to visualize a shot during his first-round match against Pat Perez, he thought instead of his mother.
He withdrew after six holes and returned to Ohio to be at his mother’s side before and after her operation. He said the doctors removed one-quarter of his mother’s lung but were optimistic they got all of the cancerous cells. On Monday, Day found out his mother would not have to undergo chemotherapy.
“I feel kind of a lot lighter in a sense that my mind is not weighing very heavily on the situation,” Day said. “All the hard stuff is behind us.”
He added, “I can actually get back to just kind of focusing on golf.”
Dening Day has never been to the Masters. In an interview last year in Australia, she said her son had discouraged her from attending, suggesting she choose another tournament every year for reasons she easily intuited. She said his nerves were always close to the surface during the Masters because it was the tournament that he most wanted to win.
Jason Day said, “Tiger Woods and Augusta National, the Masters, is why I play golf.”
This year, Day obtained a Masters badge with his mother’s name on it, which his caddie’s wife, Lisa Swatton, carried in her purse Tuesday as she watched Day play Augusta National’s front nine. Day is keen to share this year’s tournament with his mother — if her strength allows it.
“Hopefully she’s healthy enough to fly down,” he said.
Day said he hardly recognized his mother after her operation two weeks ago because she had the absent gaze of someone in a faraway place.
“It reminded me of my dad when he went through cancer, and it hit him pretty quick, and he just wasn’t there,” Day said. “He was kind of loopy and would see things and hear things, and that’s what my mom was going through as well.”
He knew his mother was going to be fine when she said that she needed to get home. “She told me, ‘I need to get back to work, or they’re going to fire me,’” Day said.
His mother can be stubborn, he said, and he knows better than to talk back to her, but this time Day could not resist. “And what if they do fire you?” he said he told her. “Would that really be the worst thing that could happen?”
Day has adopted the same attitude about the Masters. He desperately wants to win this weekend, but if he does not, he keeps reminding himself, it will hardly be the end of the world. If his mother is able to attend, he will feel like a winner no matter where his name falls on the scoreboard.
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