AUSTIN, Texas – Not one, not two, not three but four people in Jason Day’s entourage encouraged him to withdraw earlier this week after searing pain shot through his lower back during the opening day of the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play.
Their reasoning was sound.
The Dell Match Play requires the biggest workload of any PGA TOUR event of the season — seven rounds, including multiple rounds on the weekend, are required if you want to win. That’s a potential of 126 holes of golf — not exactly conducive to a bulging disc.
Plus, the Masters looms in two weeks, and Day is a prime contender. Why risk making things worse with the year’s first major on the horizon?
Besides, it wasn’t like Day has anything to prove. He had already made his statement last week in Orlando, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational. His return to form produced a nice sigh of relief from those who wondered if Day had frittered away the mojo he displayed last fall when he won four times, including his first major, the PGA Championship. Day showed at Bay Hill that his lengthy off-season no longer had any lingering effects on his game.
And it wasn’t like Day needed to prove his toughness. He has dealt with back issues and won before; it happened last fall when he had to pull out of The Barclays pro-am before winning the first FedExCup Playoffs event.
But Day didn’t listen to the foursome in his camp. Instead, he listened to the world’s newest top-ranked golfer, the guy who has as much drive and determination to find the winner’s circle as any player currently on TOUR.
He listened to himself.
“I just want to win,” Day said. “I wanted to win so bad that I felt with how I was playing, if I kept playing the way I was doing, I would be holding the trophy at the end of the week.
“That’s what kept me going.”
The payoff was a resounding 5 and 4 win over Louis Oosthuizen in the championship finals at Austin Country Club on Easter Sunday, a victory that came on the heels of a semifinal win over Rory McIlroy earlier in the morning. It’s Day’s second Dell Match Play title in three years, and it gives him another reason to celebrate besides moving to World No. 1 ahead of Jordan Spieth.
It wasn’t easy.
After Day’s lower back began acting up during his opening round win against Graeme McDowell, his team went into crisis management mode. His regular trainer, Cornell Driessen, was in South Africa, so Day borrowed Bubba Watson’s therapist, Brian Smith. Day’s regular doctor, James Bradley – the head orthopedic surgeon of the Pittsburgh Steelers for the last three decades – also joined the lines of communication.
For an hour before each round and an hour after, Day underwent therapy. He also had 30 minutes of therapy between his weekend matches. Add it up and Day estimates he had approximately 10 hours of therapy this week. “It was a lot,” he said.
The issue never completely cleared up, but the flare-ups lessened throughout the rest of the week. Day also made sure to constantly stretch in between shots. As long as he continued receiving therapy and adhere to the proper protocols, physically he could keep playing.
Mentally, the challenge was just as difficult. Day acknowledged that there were times on the driving range this week that he wondered if he was doing the right thing.
“When I was warming up,” he said, “I was on the border of checking out. I was going to go, OK, my back is sore. Come off a great week last week, everyone will know I’m injured and then I can just take the rest of the week off.
“But I didn’t want to do that because I knew if I could get through seven guys, I could get to the trophy.”
Dealing with back pain seems inevitable for most pro golfers. (Feel free to weigh in any time on this topic, Tiger). Day said he and McIlroy even discussed their disc problems during their semifinal match. “You put us in flexion and try and swing a club at 120 miles per hour,” said Day, “and you have than a million swings in your career, sooner or later it’s going to do something.”
Day’s championship opponent, Oosthuizen, also has endured his share of back ailments. Perhaps more than his share. “I’ve had every single lower back issue you can have,” he said Sunday. He recalled being unable to take a backswing due to disc problems or SI joint problems.
The reason, he said, is simple: “It’s chasing swing speed and ball speed. Somewhere something is going to cave.”
But what didn’t cave for Day this week was his will to win. After opening with a bogey to give Oosthuizen a quick lead, Day was splendid the rest of the afternoon. He took the lead with his first birdie of the day at the fourth hole and never let it go. Meanwhile, he busted out 10 drives of 300-plus yards, including two in excess of 360 yards on the back nine – a show of strength despite the faulty back.
Day’s short game was even more impressive, as he saved himself time and time again. Consider his approach shot at the par-4 fifth, after his tee shot had sailed into the gallery on the left side. Initially, he opted for a 47-degree wedge, but made a last-second decision to switch to a 52, and then hit a perfect shot to inside 3 feet. That allowed him to halve the hole with a birdie and maintain his 1-up advantage.
A year ago, he may not have been able to hit that shot, but he’s spent the last year working to improve his ball flight with different wedges. That was an instance where it paid off.
And it’s one of the reasons he’s won the last two events and will go into the Masters as, dare we say, the prohibitive favorite.
“He’s definitely at the moment a few steps ahead of everyone,” Oosthuizen said.
So, despite the bad back, and despite the fact that Day never practiced on any hole beyond the seventh prior to the start of the tournament – other commitments limited his prep work this week, so he was essentially flying blind on those holes – the Aussie was not to be denied.
“It was a very, very strange week,” Day said.
Here in the state capital of Texas, hosting its first PGA TOUR event for the first time, strange can be a good thing. Anyone who’s seen a “Keep Austin Weird” bumper sticker can attest to that.
Here’s a recap of the two semifinal matches:
LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN, South Africa def. RAFA CABRERA BELLO, Spain, 4 and 3
Oosthuizen advanced to his first Dell Match Play final, leading the entire match after starting with a birdie at the first hole. He had reached the quarterfinals in the previous two years. Cabrera Bello was his own worst enemy early, losing the fifth hole to a bogey and the seventh to a double bogey. But Oosthuizen gave back those two holes with bogeys at the eighth and ninth holes. Oosthuizen bounced back with a terrific approach to 6 feet to win the 10th to go 2 up. Cabrera Bello missed a short birdie at the 13th, then bogeyed the next two holes to end the match. The Spaniard, who had made nine birdies in his two Saturday matches, failed to produce a birdie.
Said Oosthuizen: “It was windy again today so the course played a bit different. I don’t do anything spectacular. I lost a bit of focus on 8 and 9. I was pretty solid on the day. I’ve been watching the match carefully and I know I need to play really well this afternoon. … I felt it was a day where Rafa wasn’t at his best today, so I needed to make sure I made pars and not give anything away like 8 and 9.”
JASON DAY, Australia def. RORY McILROY, N. Ireland, 1 up
In a tight back-and-forth match befitting the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 ranked players, Day advanced to the second final of his career by knocking off the defending champ. After making a double bogey at the second hole, Day was solid the rest of the way. The match was all squared through 11 holes. Day then drove the green at the par-5 12th to win the hole with a birdie, then made another birdie on the next hole after a brilliant chip from behind the green. McIlroy won the next hole with a 12-foot birdie putt. After both players birdied the par-5 16th and parred the 17th, Day then closed out the match with a clutch 13-foot par putt to halve the hole. Day will look for his second Match Play title, having won in 2014 under the previous single-elimination format.
Rory McIlroy, N. Ireland def. Chris Kirk, USA, 4 and 3
The defending Match Play champion is in the semifinals for the third time in his career. McIlroy won the opening hole with an 11-foot birdie putt and maintained the lead until his bogey at the ninth squared the match. But after making the turn, McIlroy found another gear, with four birdies in the last six holes to close out Kirk. None of McIlroy’s birdie putts in that stretch were longer than 10 feet. Kirk was unable to make anything happen past the sixth hole, and he found the water on No. 13 to lose that hole.
Said McIlroy: “I feel like each and every day I’ve improved a little bit. I think I made six or seven birdies out there this afternoon. I made a couple of mistakes and gave a couple of holes away, but for the most part I was very pleased with how I played.”
Next match: McIlroy will play Jason Day in the semifinals.
Jason Day, Australia def. Brooks Koepka, USA, 3 and 2
With the win, Day is projected to replace Jordan Spieth as world No. 1, no matter how he fares on Sunday. Day, the 2014 champion, continued his near-flawless play on Saturday afternoon, with three birdies and an eagle over a bogey-free 16 holes. His 7-foot birdie putt on the third gave him the lead, but Koepka battled back with consecutive birdies to move 1 up after six. But those were the only two birdies for Koepka in the match, giving Day the opportunity to regain the lead, which he did with a birdie at the 10th hole from 7-1/2 feet. An eagle from 11 feet at the par-5 12th won another hole, and Koepka could generate nothing else.
Said Day: “It’s been a bit of an up-and-down week, especially emotionally. It’s been quite amazing to be able to start the week and not really thinking I’m going to be able to play with what happened Wednesday. And turn around, I’m No. 1 in the world on Saturday. It’s a strange feeling. I’m glad I stuck it out.”
Next match: Day will play Rory McIlroy in the semifinals.
Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa def. Dustin Johnson, USA, 2 and 1
After losing in the quarterfinals the previous two years, Oosthuizen broke through this year. Oosthuizen, who beat top overall seed Jordan Spieth earlier in the day (see below), trailed for most of the front nine, but a 25-foot birdie at No. 10 squared the match. Johnson then lost the 11th when he missed a 5-foot par putt, as Oosthuizen took his first lead of the match. Both players found trouble at the par-5 12th and bogeyed. Oosthuizen’s clutch approach at the 15th left him with a 3-foot birdie putt, which he made to go 2 up. Johnson answered with a birdie on the par-5 16th, but Oosthuizen closed it out with a 21-foot birdie putt at the 17th.
Said Oosthuizen: “It was a good day for me. I had two tough matches today. I was focused quite a bit this morning and wanted to give myself a good opportunity to have a shot against Jordan. And then this afternoon, you know, a little bit probably more relaxed and played some good golf.”
Next match: Oosthuizen will play Cabrera Bello in the semifinals.
Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain def. Ryan Moore, USA, 2 and 1
The Spaniard never trailed as he continued his eye-catching run through the bracket as the 52nd overall seed (54th in the world, although he will move into the top 50 after this week, qualifying him for the Masters). Birdies at Nos. 5 and 6 put Cabrera Bello 2 up. He lost the eighth hole on his only bogey of the day, but played well from that point as Moore struggled to generate red numbers. In fact, Moore had just one birdie on the day.
Said Cabrera Bello: “Obviously it was a hard day. He’s a great competitor. We both played good, I think. It was tough out there with the wind, also. On my behalf, I think the difference was that I just holed a few clutch putts and hit really good wedges into the greens, gave myself birdie chances and I made a few of them.”
Louis Oosthuizen, S. Africa def. Jordan Spieth, USA, 4 and 2
Oosthuizen reached the quarterfinals for the third straight year, knocking off the top overall seed and world No. 1 in the process. Spieth had never trailed at any point this week, nor had he made a bogey in any of the first six holes. But that streak was broken with a bogey at the fourth to fall 1 down. Oosthuizen then maintained his lead the rest of the way with steady play while Spieth battled a roller-coaster stretch in which he had two birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey (at the 11th hole). It was the second time this week he doubled the 11th. Oosthuizen had three birdies in his last five holes to close it out.
Said Oosthuizen: “I was definitely the underdog. I just wanted to go out and play solid golf. Jordan played great. We both played great.”
Said Spieth: “I had great ball control the last three days. Played very, very solid rounds. I got to the range this morning and I was hitting slices with my irons, which is bizarre. I never really get that. I tried to fix it on the range, didn’t know what was up.”
Next match: Oosthuizen will play Dustin Johnson in the quarterfinals.
Rory McIlroy, N. Ireland def. Zach Johnson, USA, 1 up
In a match with seven lead changes, the defending champ knocked off the hottest player from the previous three rounds of group play. Johnson had needed just 42 holes in his first three wins and had not even played the last three holes. But for the first time all week, Johnson did not dominate the front nine. He bogeyed the second and eighth holes — the first time all week he’s suffered bogeys on the first eight holes. Still, the match was all square through 12. But Johnson then bogeyed the 13th and 15th holes. He cut the lead with a birdie at 16 and then rolled in a 21-footer for birdie at 18. McIlroy, who had made six straight pars, then sank his birdie putt from inside 4 feet for the win.
Said McIlroy: “He really doesn’t give you anything. We probably didn’t have as many birdies out there as we should have. … I definitely produced it when I needed it on the last. Lucky to get through to the afternoon.”
Next match: McIlroy will play Chris Kirk in the quarterfinals.
Jason Day, Australia def. Brandt Snedeker, USA, 3 and 2
Day, the 2014 Match Play winner, won the first hole with a par and maintained the lead the remainder of the match. His third birdie of the day, at the ninth with a 16-foot putt, put him 2 up at the turn. Snedeker then lost the next hole with bogey. Day conceded the 13th after finding the water with his tee shot, then bogeyed the 15th. But he closed out the match with an eagle from 7 feet at the 16th.
Said Day: “It (his back) was a little tight this morning, with the cold weather. But hopefully it warms up this afternoon. I hit it nice today, gave myself opportunities.”
Next match: Day will meet Brooks Koepka in the quarterfinals.
Dustin Johnson, USA def. Patrick Reed, USA, 3 and 2
Johnson continued his hot scoring hand with seven birdies and an eagle to pull away from Reed on the back nine. The match was all square after Johnson’s lone bogey at the 10th hole. But in the next four-hole stretch, he went birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to take a 3-up lead, then closed out Reed with another birdie at the 16th. In his last 31 holes played, Johnson has 15 birdies and an eagle. He’s making his first quarterfinals appearance.
Said Johnson: “I feel like I’m swinging really well. I like this golf course. It sets up really well for me. So you never know what will happen.”
Next match: Johnson will meet Louis Oosthuizen in the quarterfinals.
Brooks Koepka, USA def. Matt Kuchar, USA, 1 up
Koepka maintained the lead for most of the match after a birdie on the second hole. But after making 12 consecutive pars, Koepka bogeyed the par-5 16th, squaring the match. His tee shot at the 17th left him 3 feet for the birdie to regain the lead, and then he matched Kuchar’s birdie at 18 by making an 11-footer to close out the match. It was the first time all week Koepka had played the 17th and 18th holes.
Said Koepka: “I played really well and so did Kuch. Hats off to him. It was a fun match. It was enjoyable. I’m sure it was fun to watch.”
Next match: Koepka will meet Jason Day in the quarterfinals.
Ryan Moore, USA def. Patton Kizzire, USA, 4 and 3
Moore won the first hole with an 8-foot birdie putt and maintained the lead for the remainder of the match. He had four birdies on the front nine, including his 9-footer on the ninth that put him 3 up at the turn. He then closed out Kizzire with six consecutive pars. The last time Moore has reached the quarterfinals in this event was 2011, when he lost to eventual champ Luke Donald.
Said Moore: “I hit some good shots early and made some great putts. Definitely put pressure on him to have to respond. He honestly hit a lot of great putts and it looked like he was going to make a lot of them, just barely missing. Fortunately, mine were going in.”
Next match: Moore will meet Rafa Cabrera Bello in the quarterfinals.
Chris Kirk, USA def. Bill Haas, USA, 2 and 1
Kirk took the lead when Haas bogeyed the seventh hole, then maintained the advantage the rest of the way. Kirk followed Haas’ bogey with a birdie putt from 23 feet. Another long birdie putt, this time from 20 feet, put Kirk 3 up after 11 holes. With the match dormie after 15 holes, Kirk bogeyed the 16th, giving Haas a glimmer of hope, but then halved the 17th to close it out.
Said Kirk: “Every part of my game feels pretty solid. I’ve driven the ball well and hit some good iron shots and made some good putts.”
Next match: Kirk will play Rory McIlroy in the quarterfinals.
Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain def. Byeong-Hun An, Korea, concession
An withdrew on the 12th hole with a neck injury while Cabrera Bello not only moves on but will now get a Masters invite. Cabrera Bello, having made five birdies on the front nine, was 4 up when An withdrew. An, who finished with a string of nine consecutive pars before retiring, was unable to keep pace. The highlight for Cabrera Bello was his chip-in from 62 feet for birdie at the eighth hole. By advancing to the quarterfinals, Cabrera Bello assures himself of moving into the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking after this week, which will earn him an automatic invite to the Masters. Cabrera Bello had entered this week ranked 54th.
Said Cabrera Bello: “No one wants to win with the other guy withdrawing. I still feel I played really good golf today and made lots of birdies.”
Next match: Cabrera Bello will face Ryan Moore in the quarterfinals.