PGA Championship: Jason Day captures breakthrough win at Whistling Straits

The tears started to flow for Jason Day as he prepared to seal his victory on the 18th green, and how could anyone blame him? The Australian knew that minutes later, his agonizing major drought would evaporate.

Jason Day finally had his major.

The questions about his several close calls on major championship Sundays? Gone. The worries over his weak 72nd hole birdie effort at St. Andrews? Ancient history. The prospects for Day going forward? The sky’s the limit.

The final round wasn’t without its rough patches for the 27-year-old Australian, but in the end, Day fired a 5-under 67 to finish the PGA Championship at 20-under and capture a three-shot victory. Whistling Straits proved a comfortable location for the winner all week, as Day produced four sub-70 rounds (68-67-66-67) on the 7,507-yard layout.

In the process, Day broke the all-time major championship record in relation to par, becoming the first man to finish one of the big four at 20-under.

The emotional floodgates spilled out for Day as he cried considerably after his final putt dropped and his son, Dash, and wife, Ellie, came over to greet him.

And now the professional floodgates may open for one of the top few talents in the game.

July 26, 2015: Australian Jason Day celebrates sinking a birdie putt on the 18th green to win the Canadian open during the final round of the RBC Canadian Open at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville ON.

Day’s win has been a long time coming.

For many years that was the argument when it came to concerns over the Aussie’s ability to win. Day captured his first professional victory in 2007 as a 19-year-old on the Web.com Tour (still the youngest winner in that Tour’s history) and won the HP Byron Nelson Championship in 2010 for his first career PGA Tour victory.

He then appeared to get stuck, at times battling injuries and apathy as he failed to produce another W in his next three PGA Tour seasons. The floodgates theory proved prescient when Day won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship last year, and, after more injuries slowed down the rest of his 2014, picked up where he left off with three more Tour wins thus far in 2015.

Day has now moved his PGA Tour win total from one to five in the last 18 months.

Maybe a mushrooming major championship victory total is next. Even at age 27, Day already possesses a massive history of majors contention. His first top-10 came at Whistling Straits five years ago, but the Aussie’s first real starring act on the big stage was at the 2011 Masters when he gutted out birdies on his final two holes for a 12-under total that for a time appeared it might be good enough for a playoff.

His failures in major championship Sundays since have been well-covered, three runner-ups and no wins. A late two-shot lead at the 2013 Masters squandered by back-to-back bogeys on the 70th and 71st holes (Day later admitted he froze in the moment), a missed four-foot par putt on the 72nd that could’ve forced a playoff two months later at Merion and 54-hole co-leads at both Opens in 2015 only to see no hardware.

Now, though, Day has his win and as he seems to have mastered the cauldron of major contention, his major championship total could expand rapidly in the next several years.

It’s a smaller sample size, but the Aussie’s major championship record looked awfully similar to Phil Mickelson’s before Lefty’s initial title at the 2004 Masters. Ben Hogan built up a good amount of scar tissue in the big four (including a three-putt from 12 feet at the 1946 Masters to lose by a shot…which sounds familiar to a different guy) before winning his first at the 1946 PGA Championship.

Those two have combined for 14 major wins. One could argue Day is at or near their talent level. And Day has more years to work with, winning his first at age 27, versus Mickelson at 33 and Hogan at 34.

“It’s been a long journey,” Day said on CBS in his post-round interview. “It’s an amazing feeling to stand in front of a crowd like this and win the PGA Championship. It’s pretty special.”

It wouldn’t have been Day’s long-awaited first without some bumps.

The 27-year-old came out of the gate steady with a pair of solid short range putts and a start of three pars and one birdie. Day proceeded to floor the gas pedal with three consecutive birdies at Nos. 5, 6 and 7, the last courtesy of a 49-foot bomb right in the center.

Yet, even as Day appeared unstoppable, his competition still charged hard. A 4-under through seven start only boosted Day’s 54-hole lead from two shots to three. South African Branden Grace sat in second after holing putts of 29, 21, 33 and 16 feet (yes, all in seven holes). Day’s playing partner Jordan Spieth was only four back after a 2-under start, and Justin Rose another shot behind after his own 2-under early showing.

And then came the brief but scary fall.

The Aussie wiped a drive right on No. 8 and had to pitch out and accept his first bogey of the day. He followed with a 323-yard drive down the center on nine, but did the unthinkable on his wedge approach shot, chunking it 40 yards short.

The pressure was mounting. Grace, Spieth and Rose could feel the top dog wounded. They were ready as the leader sensed his impending doom.

But Day dug deep.

A deft pitch gave him 10 feet for par, and he rolled the putt right in. A four-shot lead and the par meant more than just a shot saved.

Day, once again, had survived through his worst. And now the Sunday fears were gone.

The back nine wasn’t a breeze, but the 27-year-old’s march toward victory appeared pretty certain after he walked off that ninth green with par.

Grace’s tournament essentially ended with a double bogey on No. 10 at the behest of some unsanctioned aggression. His flatstick couldn’t retain the fire either and he ended in 69 for a 15-under total and solo third.

Rose was also done in by a double, this one on the par-4 13th. The Englishman got as high as 16-under before the untimely six and placed solo fourth at 14-under.

The closest challenger on the back proved to be Spieth (Shocker!). The 22-year-old put together a subdued performance for most of the round, missing out on a few potentially game-changing putts. An 11-foot birdie and then a 20-foot par putt brought the Golden Child back to life for a moment, but all along he was chasing a ghost.

Spieth finished at 17-under for solo runner-up.

Golf is in good hands with the futures of Day and Jordan Spieth.

But we can’t leave without appreciating the 22-year-old’s major championship season. Spieth of course won two majors, gave us a spirited Grand Slam run and produced a 54-under total in the 2015 majors, breaking Tiger Woods’ record of a 53-under total in a single season at the majors.

Spieth’s results in the 2015 majors: 1-1-T4-2.

His second-best performance among those four honestly could have been this week, as Day’s 20-under total was otherworldly on a golf course that is gracious in its width but treacherous when players miss.

But it’s tough for Spieth to complain about two majors at 22 and now the World No. 1 ranking, which he took away from Rory McIlroy following his  solo second versus the Northern Irishman’s solo 17th.

And he appeared content, too, giving Day a classy thumbs up after a great birdie lag on 17 and stating in the aftermath he accomplished a goal with the No. 1 ranking.

Dustin Johnson was another nice storyline. The American didn’t win but fought admirably in the final round, playing his final 17 holes in 7-under after an opening quadruple bogey. Johnson finished T7.

It’s still all about Jason Day. There is no doubt about it, this is a breakthrough.

Several more victories and major triumphs are possible in his future. His chance at two-in-a-row will be strong in eight months at an Augusta National layout tailored to his bombing, high-ball hitting and all-around game.

The year began with golf fans hoping for more young challengers besides Rory.

Spieth has arrived, and so has Day. Rickie Fowler had his moments this year and names like Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau are waiting in the wings right now.

Another great talent realized his potential this week at Whistling Straits.

If the 2015 majors proved anything, golf is in an exciting place going forward.

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