Major championships are the finest tests in golf, and many times a player’s performance in his poorest stretches rather than his best determines his fate in the big four.
That was exactly the case for Jason Day on Saturday at Whistling Straits.
The 27-year-old Australian chopped it around midway through the front nine of the third round of the PGA Championship but played that four-hole stretch in one-under, enabling a fierce 5-under performance in his last 10 holes to race out to -15 and a two-shot lead heading into the final round.
Long one of the most talented players in golf, Day is still in search of his first major championship and what a Sunday it could be for the rising Aussie.
And what a Sunday it could be for the fans.
Despite Day’s third-round 66, four players sit within four shots of his lead, some of those competitors as dangerous as they come. The most ominous is Jordan Spieth, the 22-year-old American wunderkind, who tore up Whistling Strait’s back nine in 30 shots for a third-round 65 that put him at 13-under and in the final group with Day.
This has been the year of Jordan, with the Golden Child capturing the year’s first two majors and coming within a shot of a playoff at the Open Championship for the third leg of an unprecedented run at the Grand Slam. Outside of the majors, Spieth has posted two other PGA Tour wins, four additional top-threes and another ten top-10s in 2015. But on the biggest stages is where the 22-year-old has shined the most, as Spieth is embarking on one of the greatest major championship seasons in the history of golf.
Through 54 holes at the PGA Championship, Spieth is 50-under on the year in the majors, three short of Tiger Woods’ 53-under mark among the big four in 2000. But Woods’ cumulative 1,095 stroke total in the 2000 majors is the current record there, and Spieth only needs a 72 on Sunday to break it.
The craziest thing is that for much of the week thus far at Whistling Straits, this really hasn’t seemed like Spieth’s tournament. The American was caught on the bad side of the weather draw Thursday and played only solid golf on the way to an uninspiring 1-under 71. He was just 2-under for the tournament through 26 holes and facing a difficult greenside bunker shot that left him in all probability scrambling to make par, until this happened.
Spieth would play his final 10 holes of the second round in 4-under and was right back in the tournament. And yet, he was uncharacteristically outside the top 100 in strokes gained putting after he finished his second round, and, in benign scoring conditions on Saturday, he once again steered away from contention, opening with a birdie and following with several missed opportunities that led to nine solid, but frustrating pars as the other competitors were racking up red numbers.
Then his greatest bit of brilliance yet.
Spieth fought off his frustrations and canned six birdies in his final eight holes, hitting several spectacular shots and daggering three putts of seven, 12 and 16 feet to set the stage for Sunday.
It means a tantalizing Day-Spieth final group, but that’s not all. Branden Grace, the underrated South African and near-spoiler at the U.S. Open, posted 64 to put himself at 12-under, as did the scorching and ever-confident Justin Rose after a 68. The last player to win the PGA at Whistling Straits, Martin Kaymer, nearly matched playing partner Grace’s exploits, but settled for a 65 that left him 11-under and in the thick of it with one day to go. Unheralded 36-hole leader Matt Jones fought well for a while, but the Aussie played his last four holes in four-over to finish at 10-under. Long bombing American Tony Finau made a spirited charge before back-to-back bogeys left him at 10-under as well.
This is a stellar leaderboard with 18 holes left and much can still happen, but Spieth and Day are what to watch.
On the CBS broadcast, Nick Faldo noted that Spieth sort of weaseled his way into that T2 position, and he was dead on. The American really hasn’t put together his best stuff for much of the action, yet he’s right there.
It hasn’t done anything to dampen his confidence either. In his post-round interview, Spieth said something pretty interesting in noting his other competition near the top (which at the time included Finau and Jones)
“Besides Rose, those guys are going for their first major, which is pretty hard to do,” Spieth said.
Indeed, it appears Spieth will attempt to feast on the insecurity of his major championship-less counterparts on Sunday. That comment could most point to Day, who while possessing world-class talent, has been maligned in the past for his inability to win, producing just two PGA Tour victories prior to 2015. The Aussie has cracked the formula this season with a pair of victories already, but has continued to bolster his label of a player that can’t finish matters in a major, with a poor final round at the U.S. Open that dropped him from the lead to T9 and a 30-foot birdie putt that stopped a foot short on 18 at St. Andrews that left him one out of a playoff at the Open Championship. Day now has six top-4s and nine top-10s in majors without a win.
But maybe, just maybe, he is finally ready to break the barrier. Day is certainly on a mission here and it’s shown. At the Canadian Open last month, the Aussie admitted that his thought on his potential 22-foot winning birdie putt was to get the ball to the hole this time and he sure did, draining it and letting out a fierce display of emotion that told any viewer just how much that make meant.
In the past, Day has expounded on the discomfort one can feel at the top in these big tournaments and how it can appear easier to lay off, chill out and say you did your best rather than fight through that swirling vat of pressure on the way to winning. Day feels he has improved massively in this department, and it sure showed on Saturday.
After a birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey start, Day flailed his approach shots all over the place on Nos. 5, 7 and 8. It looked like the classic example of the flight gene taking over in the heat of intense battle. But Day hit three beautiful recovery shots to score a birdie and two pars there and keep his round intact through the worst of his play. The Aussie used that stabilizing four holes to go on a tear, completely ripping apart Whistling Straits with birdies on Nos. 9 and 10, an eagle on 11 and more birdies on Nos. 13 and 14. With every part of his game clicking, Day was 16-under and two clear of the field.
Then another rough patch. The Aussie hooked his second on 15 from the middle of the fairway into a greenside bunker, couldn’t get out in his first try and posted a double bogey.
Another chance to lay off the gas pedal and come back to the field when the going got tough.
Instead, Day hit two beautiful shots into the par-5 16th and only a bad lie in the greenside rough stumped out a comeback birdie. No worries, Day nailed a 25-footer on the next hole to get one back, once again displaying his fire at battling through the major championship cauldron. He nearly ended with another birdie on 18, but his 20-footer just over the edge.
Of course, this is only the third round, with Sunday being a whole different animal. Day has yet to get it done in the final round of a major championship but his label as a major championship choker is unfair as he played well enough over the last 18 holes to win the 2011 Masters, 2013 U.S. Open and this year’s Open Championship. And this feels like it’s time that Day’s journey to finally winning a major and destroying his underachiever label ends.
He’ll have a somehow-seasoned and emboldened Spieth breathing down his neck, along with other luminaries potentially posting a charge. Scoring conditions were excellent on a mostly-windless Saturday, but the final round could bring some significant breezes. Many obstacles lay in Day’s path and this could be an epic final 18 holes.
A beautiful Sunday finale to the major championship season awaits.