AUGUSTA, Georgia – Jason Day was soaking his aching back in the bathtub Friday morning, throwing a pity party, complaining about his rotten lousy luck. Of all the times for his back to go out. And of all the ways – bending over to give his daughter a kiss one day earlier on the putting green at Augusta National, just before he was to tee off in the first round of the 83rd Masters Tournament.
AUGUSTA, Georgia — The most popular figure at Augusta National this week isn’t Brooks Koepka or Bryson DeChambeau, or even Tiger Woods.
AUGUSTA, Georgia — One-by-one and eventually in record numbers Friday, they climbed to the top of the iconic Masters leaderboards that dot the…
Like his bath water, he thought, his hopes of winning were circling the drain.
His wife, Ellie, was having none of his mope-a-dope. So the mentally tougher of the two – Day readily admits it – gave her husband a stern little pep talk.
“It’s the Masters,” she said. “You need to suck it up.”
It was exactly what he needed to hear. Oh-poor-me won’t get you a green jacket. If Day could play, he needed to adjust his attitude.
“Everyone that I’m playing against is not going to be sympathetic to me because I’ve got a sore back,” Day said. “They aren’t going to go out there and shoot one more than they should because I’ve got a bad back. They’re going to use it to their advantage, knowing they’ve got that over me.
“So, I’ve got to be mentally strong, and sometimes having a good, supportive wife and knowing what she has to say in certain situations to get me ready is crucial. And it obviously helped today.”
As the old saying goes, beware the injured golfer. One day after Day considered withdrawing before scratching out a 70 while moving as gingerly as a UFC fighter after a five-round beat-down, he went out and shot a sterling 5-under 67.
On a wild day on which Zach Johnson accidentally hit his ball while making a practice swing and a member of Tiger Woods’ security detail slipped and nearly took him out – both video clips went viral – Day’s round was hard to top, literally and figuratively.
It left the 31-year-old Aussie, who won the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, in a five-way tie for the lead with Italy’s Francesco Molinari, first-round co-leader Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott and South African Louis Oosthuizen. All are major champions.
With Woods and Dustin Johnson just one stroke back, Jon Rahm two back and Phil Mickelson trailing by only three, it’s the best 36-hole leader board in recent Masters history. Of the top 15 on the leader board, eight have won majors and all but three are ranked among the top 20 in the Official Golf World Ranking.
Day has been dealing with a bad back for most of this year. He withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month and said an MRI had revealed an annular tear in the disk between the L4 and L5 vertebra. He played three times in the Masters lead-up, tying for eighth at The Players, missing the cut at Valspar and failing to get out of group play at the WGC-Dell Match Play.
He re-injured the back when he bent down to kiss his daughter, Lucy, before the first round Thursday. After hitting his tee shot on the par-5 second hole, he immediately headed off to the side of the tee box to receive medical treatment, but continued playing.
“It would have been disappointing for me to go home yesterday, knowing I had to pull out because of my back,” Day said. “I feel very blessed to be able to play, especially over the last two days, and being able to go out there today and shoot 67 was a very, very good score.”
When his back flares up, Day goes through an extraordinary regimen to get ready to play.
“This is going to sound really weird: I have to get my ribcage back in position,” he said. “When my back was sore last week my ribcage was out and I was kind of aligned … my left shoulder was high and if you look at the back line of my pants, you could see that my hips were kind of shifted and tilted.
“I blow into balloons in certain positions to try to get my ribcage down and I’ve got these other exercises to try to get space in the joint with regards to my hips and my back and my shoulders and that takes 20 or 30 minutes in the morning and 20 or 30 minutes at night.”
Maybe it would be easier if Ellie just walked on his back.
Anyway, it’s doubtful anyone else in the field – even Woods, who has had spinal fusion surgery – has gone through that protocol in the week leading up to the Masters. Asked if he’d considered any unusual remedies, Day said, “I think blowing into a balloon is pretty funny.”
He then relayed a story from last week, when he was doing the balloon thing while lying flat on his back in the pilot’s lounge at a Florida airport.
“And as you let the balloons go, it sounds like you let one go, right?” he said. “So, every 30 seconds, I would be letting the balloons out and these guys are looking at me very strange. I’m just doing whatever I can to feel good. If blowing in balloons is what I need to do to feel good, then I will do it all day long.”
OK, back to golf. Day birdied Nos. 3, 5 and 8 on the front nine and Nos. 13, 15 and 16 on the back. His lone bogey came on the par-3 12th.
“Over the last two days, I’ve played the par-5s nicely,” he said. “I think I’ve played them 7-under, which is good. I’m trying to minimize the mistakes out there. That’s the whole goal.”
He admitted that dealing with back pain actually has relieved the pressure of playing in a major championship because his expectations are lowered.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “Especially at a place like this. A major, you know, Augusta National, the Masters, everything that goes on this week, how big it is, and the distraction of wanting to win this tournament so bad. Sometimes it’s almost a blessing in disguise with regards to bringing down the expectation of going out there and trying too hard.”
Who knows? If Day keeps playing like this, he just might back into a green jacket.