Bill Nichols

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Masters runnerup Jason Day returns home for epic match _ does not finish second

Jason Day of Australia reacts after a birdie on the 17th hole during the final round of the Masters golf tournament Sunday, April 10, 2011, in Augusta, Ga.
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Bill Nichols
Dallas Morning News

IRVINGJason Day could have played the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio this week. He could have gone overseas to compete with Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and Rory McIlroy in Malaysia.
Or he could have just kicked back at his Fort Worth home and counted the $704,000 he pocketed for his co-runner-up finish at the Masters.

Instead, he went to where the real action was. He brought his No. 24 World Ranking to the TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas on Thursday for a match with yours truly. John Beckert, chairman of the HP Byron Nelson Championship, and HP’s Mark Hipp also played.

Many expected a blowout.

At 23, Day is one of the world’s top young players. The Aussie posted his first victory at last year’s Nelson.
On Sunday, he birdied the final two holes at Augusta National to finish two strokes behind Schwartzel. Day posted the lowest 72-hole for a first-time player in Masters history.

Me? I hit 104 range balls on Wednesday night.

The national media gave me no chance. Neither did my family.

Wife: “He’s hot.”

Upon arrival, as word spread that Day was en route, I sought advice from Paul Earnest, director of golf. Here’s the pep talk in its entirety:

“Lower your expectations. No, really. He’s not expecting you to hit any good shots.”

When Day arrived, he was treated like a rock star. Everybody had seen the thrilling conclusion of Sunday’s telecast. It was Masters this, Masters that; Nelson this, Nelson that.

I blasted a few drives on the range to intimidate. He must have been nervous as he lazily launched 9-irons into the clouds.

“I hope you brought a lot of cash,” I said to myself.

On No. 1, Day walked to the last tee box, said “I’m playing from back here,” and then unleashed a drive that went through the dogleg, leaving a perfect angle to the green. I’m pretty sure he hit pitching wedge on his second shot to the 458-yard hole.

My drive went airborne (whew) and I caught up to Day after chipping out of the trees. He made a two-putt par. I made a scalding-wedge-two-putt double bogey. No. 2 was another two-putt par for him, and a two-putt bogey for me, assisted by an 8-foot concession gimme. I was three strokes down after two holes. He could feel the heat.

On No. 4, Day had a brutal lie in the fairway bunker. He crouched at the knees and somehow made contact.

“Do you see his ball?” Beckert said, amazed. “It’s on the green.”

Day kept making pars. I kept not making pars, except for the par-3 fifth.

“Good putt, mate,” Day said.

By the time we hit 14, the paparazzi had caught up. I figured I could exploit Day being distracted by Channel 8’s team. But he simply got hooked up with a microphone, belted a 3-wood about 275 yards, answered questions from Joe Trahan and made a two-putt par. Ho hum.

It was as if Day was unaware we were locked in a titanic tryst. He was polite, relaxed and talkative. He told us about the benefits of driving to Tour events in an RV with his wife, Ellie, and their two dogs. He said they were building a second home in the Cleveland area near her parents.

He talked about how the NFL was better than Aussie Rules Football and discussed becoming a Cowboys fan. “I’m really excited about Jason Garrett; great coach,” he said. He was just having fun playing a relaxed round of golf.

He described the excitement of sitting in the scorer’s hut off the 18th green at the Masters watching Schwartzel on TV make the final two of his four straight birdies.

“I was thinking playoff,” he said. “I was just going, ‘uh oh,’ when he made those putts. What a way for him to win a tournament, with four straight birdies.”

Although against the wind, he rolled his drive up near the green on the 323-yard 11th. And on 18, he provided rare insight into a professional golfer’s psyche after knocking his drive in the pond on the left.
“That’s my lake,” he said, laughing. “I put two in there last year. That’s just nerves. I’d been in that situation on the Nationwide Tour , but never on the PGA Tour. I didn’t want it to go to a playoff.”
Thursday’s match certainly didn’t need extra holes. The kid won everybody over long before 18.

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