SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jason Day was lost.
That could summarize the state of his game for the last few years as the former world No. 1 plummeted all the way down to No. 150 after barely scraping to make the cut at the 3M Open in July. But last month at the American Express in Palm Desert, California, Day actually was lost after making a wrong turn in his rental car.
“They had that concert on and I got lost and I just sat on the side of the road looking at the mountains for like 30 minutes,” Day recalled. “It felt like no matter what I did, I was just turning the wrong way every single time.”
Later, during an extended discussion about feeling lost and as Day put it, “being humbled,” he added: “I don’t know how to explain it but it was stress, disappointment, frustration all boiled up. You’ve done it before, and you know how good you can be but you’re playing so poorly. You go from being the best in the world to you can’t bust an egg with a hammer.”
Rickie Fowler can relate. He never quite reached the top of the mountain, but he was a perennial top-10 player in the world, who suddenly couldn’t crack an egg either.
Through 36 holes at the WM Phoenix Open, they are lurking on the first page of the leaderboard. Day held the first-round lead with a bogey-free 65 while Fowler did his damage on Friday, posting a 5-under 66. They are both chasing defending WM Phoenix Open champion Scottie Scheffler, who carded 64 to set the pace at 10-under 132 and can regain No. 1 in the world with a win, and World No. 3 Jon Rahm, who trailed by two strokes and has his own scenarios to becoming No. 1 at the end of the week.
Jason Day entered the week averaging the 3rd-most strokes gained total per round on the PGA Tour since the beginning of October (min. 10 rounds played).
Trailed only Finau and Rahm in that span.
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) February 10, 2023
Day eventually used Google Maps and found his way home. But it serves as a larger metaphor for the state of his game.
“I was struggling with my body, struggling mentally, struggling with my mom passing (from cancer in March), struggling with a lot of things,” he said. “I think finally over the last few months I feel like things are finally settled down where I can actually focus on golf and playing golf and really just trying to do the best job I can.”
Day and Fowler both could’ve taken the easy way out and joined LIV Golf, but instead they have doubled down on hard work to regain past form and are hot on the comeback trail. Fowler, the winner of the 2015 Players Championship, fell to No. 160 in the world late last year. He started working with instructor Butch Harmon again and tied for second at the Zozo Championship in October. He enters the week at No. 100 in Official World Golf Ranking.
“No one stays at the top. You never stay at your best. You’re always going to have to deal with struggles and tough times,” Fowler said. “So it’s just part of being out here and part of the sport.”
After a T-3 at the 2022 Farmers Insurance Open a year ago, Day didn’t record another top-10 finish in an individual event and barely made the FedEx Cup playoffs. He’s shown progress this season, recording six top-25 finishes in eight starts and twice has been in the top 10, lifting him back inside the top 100 in the world at No. 91 as of this week. “It took a little while to unravel the knot. Because you know, he has to manage his body correctly,” said CBS’s lead analyst Trevor Immelman. “But I think he’s there.”
Day’s struggles with injuries, particularly to his back have been well documented. He’s spent more than a year working with instructor Chris Como adjusting his swing to reduce the stress on his back.
“I know what it is like to play with really bad back pain. It would be nice to be able to be like a Tom Brady in regards to his longevity and work my way out of being injured with a bad back to being healthy and competitive in my 40s,” said the 35-year-old Day, who labeled himself obsessed with trying to shallow his swing and get comfortable with different release patterns to the point that he’ll phone Como at all hours of the night.
“I’ll call him 1 o’clock in the morning just because I have an idea,” Day said.
Here is one of the significant changes Jason Day has made over the last year. Notice on the right the change of knee flex with a little window opening up between the knees. I’m telling you https://t.co/p1PEnHFkIA iron game getting really good. pic.twitter.com/YwmHd57KIc
— Travis Fulton (@travisfulton) February 10, 2023
The 12-time Tour winner is winless since the 2018 Wells Fargo Championship, and he longs for those sleepless Saturday nights when he’s in contention.
“I miss that,” he said. “I’ve been sleeping quite nicely over the last two years.”
He may be tired after playing 26 holes on Friday, putting the finishing touches on an opening-round 65 and following it up with a sturdy even-par 71 in which the putter cooled off. It’s been a long road to where he is now. He knows it won’t be a smooth trip back to the top of the mountain, but Day is enjoying the journey and has a destination in his sights.
“My goal is to try to get back to No. 1,” he said. “You have to have that belief in you to be able to try and at least have that as a goal. If it doesn’t pan out, then it doesn’t pan out.”
Time will tell if Day and Fowler have found their way.