Heading into Sunday’s final round of the 97th PGA Championship at Whistling Straits GC, the usual cast of characters had assembled on top of the leaderboard.
The superstar ensemble was led by Jason Day, who had improved each day to shoot 68, 67 and 66 to be at 15-under par for the tournament.
Day has played in 20 Majors and has been in the Top Ten in half of those events including several heartbreakingly close calls. The gifted 27-year old from Queensland, Australia, pretty much heads up everyone’s list of “Best Player Never to Have Won a Major”.
Most golfers can tell you that Jack Nicklaus holds the record of having won 18 professional Majors. What a lot of those people may not know is that Nicklaus came in second even more times that he won; 19 times. It is the measure of every great player that they must be in contention more times than they actually win, with the crucible of those experiences a blueprint for when they triumph.
Lurking two shots behind Day was World #2, the phenomenon that is Jordan Spieth. After victories in the year’s first two Majors; The Masters and the U.S. Open, and an excruciating finish at The Open which saw him miss the playoff by one shot, the 22 year old was trying to become only the third player in history to win three of four Majors in a calendar year. The other two players to accomplish that were Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods.
Spieth was in danger of becoming a footnote for the Championship until a scintillating stretch saw him birdie 6 of his last 7 holes en route to a 7-under par, 65.
One shot behind Spieth in a tie for 3rd at 12-under par were Justin Rose and Branden Grace. 2013 U.S. Open champion, Rose, is having another great year on Tour with a win and two runner-up finishes, which could have been even better, were it not for an occasionally uncooperative putter.
27-year old Grace has won 6 times on the European Tour and is starting to be a consistent performer in the Majors. Grace held the lead with three holes to play at this years’ U.S. Open at Chambers Bay before a double bogey on his 16th hole ended his run.
When the PGA Championship was last held at Whistling Straits, the winner was little known German professional, Martin Kaymer. Since that victory, Kaymer has added both a Players Championship and the U.S. Open to his resume and he began Sunday 4 shots behind Day at 11-under par.
On the periphery of contention at 9-under was Dustin Johnson, who like Day, has had so many close calls in Majors, but has yet to breakthrough. It was here at Kohler that Johnson lost the 2010 PGA when he grounded his club in a hazard on his final hole in 2010, incurring a one stroke penalty and beginning a string of near misses at the games’ biggest events.
Day would begin Sunday much as he had ended on Saturday and although Grace, Rose and Spieth all made early runs, Day answered them all. When Day birdied the par-3 7th hole to be 4-under for the round and 19-under par for the Championship, he became only the third player in history to be that far under par in a Major. The two other players to do so were Tiger Woods in the 2000 Open Championship and Jordan Spieth earlier this year in The Masters. Woods would finish at 19-under while Spieth fell back from that number to finish at 18-under.
With three holes left to play, Day had a 3 shot lead over Spieth and was 4 ahead of Rose and Grace.
After both Spieth and Day birdied the par-5 16th, Day had reached the unthinkable cumulative score of 20-under par.
When both players made pars on the final two holes, Day would capture the Wanamaker trophy for his first Major and set the scoring record in Major Championship history, with his 20-under par total.
As he embraced his caddie, Colin Swatton, all the emotion of his journey overtook him. Day lost his Father when he was 12 years old and his Mother sent him to boarding school where he first met Swatton who would become a Father figure, coach, and best friend to the troubled youth. That journey met its zenith this week in Kohler, Wisconsin, but there is still a great road to walk and many days to embrace.
Spieth has been remarkable this year with wins in the first two Majors, a tie (with Day, ironically) in The Open and then this, a runner-up in the PGA. In this age of so many supremely talented players, it has been nothing short of amazing for the 22 year old Texan. Spieth now replaces Rory McIlroy atop the World golf rankings to become the #1 ranked player in the world.
But this Championship belonged to Day whose perseverance and brilliance were the prevailing story at Whistling Straits. Now that he has experienced the Major that he has been so diligently pursuing, this could be the first of many, for the Australian.
Seize the Day; indeed.