Jason Day's rise to No. 1 a major achievement

AT THE 2011 Masters, Australian Jason Day closed with two birdies to finish tied for second, two behind South Africa's Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the last four holes. And two months later he got another second at the U.S. Open, eight in back of runaway winner Rory McIlroy. The previous August, Day had tied for 10th at the PGA Championship in his second major.

But that April in Augusta, most people still didn't really know who the then-23-year-old was or what he might have in him. Golf is littered with guys who do something and are mostly never heard from again. It's the nature of the game.

Later that night, a group of about five writers trudged into one of the few chain restaurants still open along Washington Road, less than a mile from the course, looking for anything to eat before we headed home and attempted to get some sleep. OK, maybe after playing a round of golf. It can be a long week. The place wasn't crowded. We got seated at the table right next to the runner-up, who was just finishing his meal with an intimate entourage of his own.

One of my colleagues is from Toledo, so he knew that Day's wife Ellie was from Ohio. At some point we decided to go over and congratulate him on his performance. It's not something we usually do, but for whatever reasons, this time it just felt right. It might have been the last thing Day needed. Yet he seemed to be having a good time, and he stood to thank us for coming over. He shook hands and introduced us to the rest of his party. I thought it was surprisingly refreshing. He didn't have to be so gracious. My impression was that Day was someone I could root for. Nothing's happened since that chance encounter to change my mind.

But who knew that five years later he would be ranked No. 1 on the food chain?

He has 10 PGA Tour victories. Seven have come since last July. They include the PGA Championship, his first major win; the Players Championship; a World Golf Championship; and two FedEx Cup playoffs. He hasn't been out of the top 10 in any of the last five majors. He missed a playoff at the British Open by one more roll of his ball on the 72nd hole at St. Andrews. Two weeks ago, at the U.S. Open at Oakmont, he overcame an opening 76 to make a late run and get into contention before playing the last two holes at 3-over to end up six behind Dustin Johnson. In last year's U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he was tied for the lead after 54 holes despite suffering from vertigo in the third round.

Last week, Day flew from Columbus to be at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., where the PGA will be held July 28-31. Defending champs don't always make themselves available for media days. Sometimes their schedules get in the way. Or other obligations. It happens. I couldn't imagine Day not being there, especially for this one. So he gave everyone what became an entertaining hour of his time, sitting down for what was billed as a "fireside chat" with the PGA of America's Julius Mason.

Because golf is making a return to the summer Olympic Games this August after a century-plus absence, the PGA is being played two weeks earlier this year, only two weeks after the British Open. The Canadian Open is sandwiched in between. Since Day - who has decided to join the growing list of marquee golfers not playing in the Olympics because of concerns over the Zika virus - is also the defending champ of the Canadian, he won't get a week off as some might likely opt to do.

Maybe the responsiblities go with the aspirations. And Day makes no secret that he wants it all, for as long as he possibly can.

"It's difficult to win tournaments," Day said. "It's hard. The more stressful it is, the better. It separates the guys who want it more than others. I've got a lot of work to do."

He's been ranked first for 18 weeks. Tiger Woods did it for 683.

"That's staggering," Day gushed. "That's like 13 years. It's an absolute joke. But (being there) is very, very important. I always talk about it. The way you stay there is to keep winning tournaments and win majors."

The pace he's been on is, well, Tigeresque too. He's won nearly 50 percent of his starts the last 12 months. And that's while former No. 1 Jordan Spieth, who at 22 is six years younger with one more major on his résumé, has been winning seven times himself in the last 15.

"Every now and then, I sit on the couch when no one can see me and go, 'I'm the best golfer on the planet,' " Day smiled. "It's pretty cool. It really is. There's perks. And also some stuff that comes with it that's not so great. That's what it is . . . But when you're on the green with your family (he has two young children) getting an opportunity to celebrate a win, it's really fun.

"Once your name's etched onto the trophy, it won't come off."

When he watched the film of his PGA win at Whistling Straits, where he played in the last group with Spieth and won by three by shooting an unheard-of 20-under-par - and then had tears in his eyes as he hugged his loved ones afterward - you could see his emotions taking over once again.

"I know I made it look easy," he said. "But I look like I'm 50 there. I was beat up."

In a good way.

Day, who was chubby growing up, said he's still about 18 months away from being in his optimum shape. So his plan is to get to 40 and "re-evaluate everything" then go from there. At that point he might decide that he's had enough and not pick up a club again. He sure sounds serious enough.

"It's more so up here," Day said, pointing to his head. "Will I still want it? Before my time is over, I want to win as much as I can. It's over when you don't want to improve any more. I'm very greedy. And very motivated. It's a very individual game. I come to win. And I'm OK with that. You never know how many wins is enough. When you're not motivated any more, you might as well pack your bags and go . . .

"It just took a long time for the belief to set in, I think. And I started to look at myself differently."

Day appears to be extremely comfortable in his own skin. It's a great look for him. If you saw the adorable Father's Day commercial he did with his son Dash, it only reinforces that reality.

Best of all, he remains someone everyone can certainly root for.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn