JASON Day lost his father to cancer when he was 12. If not for Colin Swatton, he might have lost everything else.
They became surrogate father and son soon after Day arrived at Kooralbyn International School, a 30-minute drive south of his hometown in Beaudesert, Australia. Day’s mother, desperate to get her son off the streets and away from a crowd of toughs who prized fighting and drinking, took on a second job to pay the fees.
Swatton was the golf coach at Kooralbyn and their relationship got off on the wrong foot. The success they have patiently and painstakingly crafted since those difficult early days was never more striking than on Sunday when they stood a few yards apart with the Wannamaker Trophy – awarded to the winner of the US PGA Championship – sitting on a pedestal between them.
Day had just won the title, a record 20-under-par total at Whistling Straits giving him a three-shot win over the new world No 1, Jordan Spieth.
“It’s pretty well documented that Jason could have been on the wrong side of the tracks when he was 12 and that’s true,” Swatton recalled. “He could easily have gone the other way.
“He would have wound up in a totally different spot,” Swatton added, stealing a glance at his prize pupil. “He wouldn’t have been standing on the 18th green at Whistling Straits.”
Moments earlier, right after he first wrapped his hands around the trophy with tears streaming down his face, Day struggled to repay the debt.
“I lose my dad at 12 and then met Colin, and to have him walk the journey with me, have him walk up the 18th hole with me, was just a special, special experience I could never forget. It’s just,” he paused, composing himself once more, “an amazing feeling I have.
“He’s taken me from a kid that was getting into fights at home and getting drunk at 12 and not heading in the right direction to a major champion.”
The caddie code is often boiled down to just three things: Show up, keep up and shut up. But Swatton and Day have written their own, basing it on trust and mutual respect – the still-headstrong kid, now 27, and the wizened old tutor who remains the only swing coach and caddie he’s employed to this day.
What sold Swatton on the bargain was their first argument soon after they met, when he tried to persuade the 12-year-old Day to join the group in a drill and the kid wanted to play the par-3 course nearby. Day showed up soon afterward at the practice ground and apologised, then won Swatton over by proving his sincerity time and again.
“Yeah, we had that little disagreement initially but, from that day forward, we were really good team,” Swatton said. “After that, if you gave him something to do, he would just do it. He wouldn’t question why, he wouldn’t just do it for a day or two, and move on to something else. It was just, ‘I’ll do it until you tell me to stop and just tell me what you want me to do.”’
There were plenty of ups and downs in between, Swatton trying to toe the motivational line between personal and professional as Day kept coming so close in recent years – but ultimately falling just short – in one major after another. There was the 2013 Masters, then both the US Open and The Open this summer.
Day’s performance at the US Open at Chambers Bay in June may have been their toughest moment together. A bout of vertigo caused Day to collapse on the course, then get back up still wobbling and shaky.
Unsure whether he could play the next round, Day ended the round tied for the lead before slipping back on the final day into a tie for ninth. “I thought it was a heart attack,” Swatton said. “Normally, he would give me some warning or indication that he was struggling, so that was really alarming.”
Despite plenty of drama as Day battled Spieth down the stretch, Sunday was a comparative walk in the park. Swatton, who wears the hats of caddie, coach and sometimes-corner man, found himself propping up his fighter’s confidence only a few times – notably after a chunked chip at nine, and then after an approach shot at 16.
In the fairway there, after some consultation and, with Spieth in a greenside bunker facing a tough escape, Day and Swatton settled on a 4-iron the player smacked 232 yards to the back of the green to set up an eagle try. Then Day turned and playfully punched Swatton in the shoulder.
“What’s rubbed off on me the most,” Day said afterwards, “is that he’s always kind of questioning, OK, is this right? Is this wrong? Asking questions to the right people. To really be able to be open to learning and growing as a player and as a person, if you don’t do that, you stop. And that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned off him,” Day said, “to really understand and listen.”
Spieth had the consolation of becoming the second youngest world No 1 behind Tiger Woods, overtaking defending champion Rory McIlroy, who finished 17th on his return from injury.
“It’s by far the best consolation, by far the best loss I think I’ve ever had because I felt that I not only couldn’t do much about it, as the round went on, I also accomplished one of my lifelong goals,” Masters and US Open champion Spieth said.
“That will never be taken away from me now. I’ll always be a No 1 player in the world. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
‘’I knew walking up the 16th Jason was going to win so I was focusing on finishing second and accomplishing a career goal. So much work has gone into this and what a year it has been.’’
Spieth was quick to pay tribute to Day, admitting he was surprised at how aggressively his playing partner had attacked the course. “It was fantastic,” Spieth added. “We play a lot of golf and we played a lot of major championship rounds together and that was the best I’ve ever seen him play.”